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Politics, Pulpits and Pandering

Jewish Light Editorial

Sometimes it seems like bad ideas never go away; they just retreat from the public consciousness, only to resurface again and again.

That’s what happened last week, when the Post-Dispatch reported that Josh Hawley, Missouri’s attorney general and Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, wants to change the federal tax code to allow religious leaders to get involved in politics from the pulpit.

Let’s be clear from the start. Nothing bars rabbis, priests, ministers or any other religious leader from speaking about political topics in their weekly sermons or other forums. Issues that involve social justice, from immigration to civil rights to the plight of the poor, have long figured in messages preached in synagogues, churches and mosques, and rightly so. Sometimes, such messages may come close to crossing the line between issues and candidates, and enforcement of the ban on politics from the pulpit has hardly been stringent.

What Hawley and others, including President Donald Trump, want is to allow religious institutions that enjoy nonprofit, tax-free status to become directly involved in political campaigns. Far from righting a constitutional wrong, as Hawley reportedly told church leaders meeting in St. Louis last month, the change would pander to political opportunists and open the door to abuse of tax and campaign finance laws that are designed to preserve the wall between church and state.

The prohibition against politicking from the pulpit is known as the Johnson Amendment, named after former President Lyndon B. Johnson, and has been part of the nation’s tax code since 1954 when Johnson was in Congress. It simply bars any organization that has tax-exempt status from endorsing or opposing candidates for political office. Advocating for issues is fine; pushing individual candidates is not.

In his speech, and in a follow-up comment to the Post-Dispatch, Hawley wrongly framed the issue as one of freedom of speech, claiming that anyone who favors the long-established policy, including his opponent, Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, wants to “muzzle people of faith.” 

“It’s just absolutely unconstitutional,” the GOP candidate told the church leaders. “Religious liberty is under attack in this country, and it’s a terrible thing. It’s a dangerous thing.”

The opposite is true. What would be dangerous to democracy would be to open the financial floodgates and allow religious institutions to become conduits of cash to individual political candidates. 

The change that Hawley and Trump seek would do more than damage democratic and religious norms. It also would hurt the nation’s finances, which already faces increased deficits because of last year’s tax bill. Congress’ Joint Committee on Taxation has projected that proposed changes to the Johnson Amendment would cost the country $2.1 billion in lost taxes in 10 years because donors could move political donations to churches and nonprofits, where they would be tax-deductible. 

And the reputations for nonpartisanship that many religious and other non-profit organizations have carefully built over the years would also be at stake, as candidates introduced the promise of fat donations in return for political endorsements.

Opposition to any change in the current law was emphasized last year when a letter signed by a broad coalition of more than 4,000 faith leaders from all over the country urged members of Congress to resist efforts to gut the Johnson Amendment and leave intact the prohibition on  involvement in partisan politics.

But Trump is not giving up easily. Last year, he signed an executive order telling the Internal Revenue Service not to go aggressively after cases in which a religious organization has made political donations or endorsed a candidate. His order used language that sounds good but totally misses the point:

“The Founders envisioned a Nation in which religious voices and views were integral to a vibrant public square, and in which religious people and institutions were free to practice their faith without fear of discrimination or retaliation by the Federal Government.”

No one is barring any Americans from practicing their faith without fear of discrimination or retaliation. Such allegations are typical of the administration’s talent for deflection and misdirection.

And The New York Times reports that just this month, the president boasted to evangelical leaders that he had gotten rid of the Johnson Amendment and they needed to champion candidates who would carry out his vision.

Otherwise, the Times reported Trump as saying, Democrats “will overturn everything that we’ve done and they’ll do it quickly and violently.”

As shown by Trump’s language, partisan rhetoric in this country is already overheated and, with the midterm elections approaching, no one needs to throw gasoline on a simmering issue. The strong reasoning behind the Johnson Amendment is as valid today as it was more than 60 years ago. 

Far from what Hawley and others assert, keeping politics out of the pulpit is not dangerous. What would really be dangerous would be undermining the political independence of nonprofit institutions. All public officials should resist changes to a policy that continues to work well and not given in to the kind of harsh, misguided outlook that Hawley and Trump represent.