The American Ethical Union strongly opposes the repeal of the Johnson Amendment of 1954. President Donald Trump declared his intention to rescind the Amendment at the National Breakfast on February 2, 2017.
The Johnson Amendment is appended to Internal Revenue regulations and forbids churches from participating in political campaigns, especially banning clergypersons from supporting political candidates from the pulpit. President Trump has vowed “to destroy” the provision on the grounds that it inhibits freedom of religion. Trump’s pledge has been met by strong approval from the conservative churches.
The American Ethical Union has had a long and robust history of support for church/state separation, which we affirm as the most secure arrangement by which to prevent establishing religion while preserving religious freedom. The rescinding of the Johnson Amendment will foster an excessive entanglement of religion and government which will cause great harm to both.
Rather than expand religious freedom, allowing churches to support political candidates will serve to greatly limit that freedom. The involvement of churches in political campaigns will divert religious congregations from their spiritual mission, while tending to promote and identifying political candidates as conveyors of religious values if not religious icons. This entanglement will also work to undermine the specific prophetic role of churches, which has historically critiqued and chastened excesses of secular power.
Moreover, support for political candidates will work to divide congregations, sow divisions in their governing boards, and set church members against their religious leaders. Support for political candidates will also foster a quid pro quo whereby political candidates and office holders will feel compelled to bestow favors on churches that support them thus undermining state neutrality toward the religions, again an essential component of religious freedom as envisioned by the Founders.
The most salient index of religious establishment is expressed through financial support of government for religion and vice-versa. In the Citizens United case of 2010, the Supreme Court validated financial donations as a medium of free speech. It will inevitably follow that the rescinding of the Johnson Amendment will quickly lead to the unregulated use of churches as funding sources for political candidates, thus, again, corrupting the religious mission of churches while distorting the financial power of political candidates in an environment which remains excessively influenced by money issuing from special interests.