Michael Tavoliero: Johnson Amendment and the restrictions on political speech

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By MICHAEL TAVOLIERO

In 1954, an amendment to the newly revised Internal Revenue Tax code was added: The Johnson Amendment.

This amendment restricted the political activities of tax-exempt organizations, including churches. The amendment prohibited tax-exempt organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates or contributing to political campaigns. While it does not prevent them from engaging in issue advocacy or expressing opinions on public policy issues, it does restrict their ability to engage in certain types of political speech. 

It remains in effect today.

Our government has no compelling interest in this amendment. It is unconstitutional and violates the First Amendment. 

The Johnson Amendment was introduced by Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson, a Texas Democrat, who later became president and brought us the “Great Society” and the “War on Poverty.”

Supporters of the amendment argue that it maintains the integrity of the nonprofit sector and prevents tax-exempt organizations, including churches, from being used for partisan political activity. However, the first organization described in the code is religious, indicating that the amendment specifically targets churches.

It is noteworthy that the Johnson Amendment was introduced as a reaction to the Facts Forum and the Committee for Constitutional Government. Both organizations at the time worked to campaign against politicians like Lyndon B. Johnson. The Johnson Amendment was introduced to shut down this political zeal.

But why churches and religious organizations?  It’s important to understand the history behind it first.

Even before the dream of the establishment of an American culture and society, early colonialists came to the New World for many reasons. Large numbers sought freedom from religious and political persecution, risking their lives and the lives of their families to travel thousands of miles over unfamiliar oceans and hostile territory to find it.

Religion played a significant role in the lead-up to the American Revolution, and many churches and religious leaders were actively involved in the movement for independence from England. The church provided a moral and intellectual foundation for the revolution and played a key role in organizing and mobilizing support for the revolutionary cause. Religious groups and leaders provided practical support for the revolution, providing funding and supplies for the Continental Army and serving as chaplains and spiritual advisors to the troops.

In the subsequent years of this constitutional republic, religious groups and leaders were involved in debates over the meaning and interpretation of the Constitution. They continued to use religious language and imagery to promote their views and shape public opinion. 

The church played a key role in shaping American culture and society in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Churches and religious organizations were involved in efforts to establish public schools and universities, promote literacy and education, and provide social services and support for the poor and disadvantaged.

In addition, the church continued to be an important voice in American politics and public life. Many religious leaders and groups have been involved in debates over issues such as civil rights, women’s rights, slavery, government corruption, and other issues. They used their platforms to promote their views and advocate for policy changes in working through political dynamics.

If not for the church’s commitment to the abolitionist movement, slavery might have perpetuated for much longer than it did. The church not only preached the gospel; it lived it, addressing societal issues the Gospel stands against.

Eric Metaxas, in his new book, “Letter to the American Church,” asks, “Have we forgotten that pastors in the eighteenth century spoke boldly from their colonial pulpits against the tyranny of King George III, and opposed him by name? Was it not their voices that helped us to gain our freedoms and that helped us to create a Constitution in which all of our freedoms were enshrined in a way that has been the envy of the whole world ever since? Were pastors from their American pulpits in the nineteenth century not allowed to speak against those candidates who expressed racist and pro-slavery views? Did they not even have an obligation to educate their congregations on such things and to encourage them to choose leaders who shared God’s views? Finally, were pastors in the twentieth century not allowed to speak out against candidates who advocated for Jim Crow laws? Do we think they ought to have been?”

Because of the Johnson Amendment, the voice of American churches has been intentionally gagged. The Johnson Amendment has done more than restrict First Amendment rights in America. Over time, the Johnson Amendment has removed the will, faith and courage of churches and religious organizations to participate in these important debates and to have an actively meaningful voice in shaping public policy. By restricting their political activities, the amendment has silenced religious groups and leaders, denying them the opportunity to advocate for policies and candidates that align with their beliefs and values. 

Today, the church is blind, deaf, and dumb, and focused solely on money. It must return to debating the public policies that wove our national fabric, to vetting political candidates who will support our Constitution, to addressing the critical issues which are repressed by the mainstream media, and to critiquing the “woke” agenda which intentionally damages our children and divides us as a society.

In conclusion, Eric Metaxas says it best:

“There are a host of reasons—and excuses—for the behavior of many pastors and Christian leaders…. The American Christians of our own time have taken to using the term “the Gospel” in a new way, as though by doing this they hope to set religious and theological issues apart from all else, as though this were possible.

And so now, when many American church leaders shrink from taking a particular stand, they often say that they are doing so “for the sake of the Gospel.” It is “for the sake of the Gospel” that we will not contest these things, they say, that we will assiduously avoid taking sides in these terribly divisive “culture wars,” and will even more assiduously avoid being identified with any political party or candidate.

The idea is that anything that might conceivably be accused of “being political” is manifestly out of bounds. When is speaking against injustice “merely political”?

When and how did “Gospel-related” issues retreat to where they can only be those issues of justice that fall on one side of the political spectrum? Are we to be hoodwinked so easily? Who decided that being political means we are not being Gospel-oriented?

Michael Tavoliero is a realtor in Eagle River, is active in the Alaska Republican Party and chaired Eaglexit.

7 COMMENTS

  1. It is laughable that such an illegal “law” was even passed as it is NOT being observed today. There are billions of dollars funneled through “non profits” every month to advance a political agenda counter to the majority of those that actually pay taxes. And by tax payers, I exclude everyone that works for government or one of these non profits, since all their income comes from the rest of us taxpayers. The majority of the problem are not that there exist these unconstitutional laws but that the justice department has no interest in upholding the constitution on behalf of the private citizen. Singling out churches to enforce this BS is further proof that the system is bent.

  2. I will keep my politics out of the pew if they keep their religion out of our politics. Great Amendment tax exempt organizations aren’t people!!!

  3. I think if Mr. Tavoliero would take a second look, he would find that this is only for those churches who are 501c3 tax exempt corporations. Churches need not be such, but many choose to be for some of the “benefits” government affords them. Basically a good article otherwise, and I applaud Mr. Tavoliero for bringing the subject forward; too bad the majority of churches have bought into the rouse.

  4. Always remember what role religion had with our founding fathers and what they had in mind with government contrasted to what socialists / communists have in mind. I submit that the Johnson amendment looks way more like the second option than the first.

  5. We are commanded to live the Gospel (see Matthew 5:16) – in such a way that the light of the glory of God shines through us. This pastor doesn’t hesitate to proclaim even candidates if the issues warrant – and we are not registered with the infernal revenue service. Gagging churches in any form is a violation of the !st Amendment, period. To those who don’t want us to speak simply don’t listen – like my reaction to the lamestream media… You may be the only Jesus they will see – and He had some words for the politicians of His day: He called them snakes…

  6. Michael, LBJ brought us the ” Great Society ” and the War in Vietnam, which together actually led our Nation into Poverty!

    Other Presidents have declared wars on ill defined things too, Nixon’s “War on Drugs” and Bush the second ” War on Terror” are but two examples.

    In the end it comes down to one question, do you trust your Government? Obviously our founders did not trust Government and fashioned the Constitution accordingly.
    I believe the First Amendment addresses everything we need to know about the Johnson amendment. Edmund Burke once noted that, Constitutions cannot defend themselves, their defense relies upon the vigilance and courage of the people.

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