They came as no surprise.
Several of the state’s largest newspapers recently unleashed a torrent of criticism against Missouri Attorney General Joshua Hawley after he said the unconstitutional Johnson Amendment should be repealed. The Kansas City Star blurted that Hawley was “shilling” for votes, while the St. Louis Post-Dispatch whined that the misappropriated so-called “wall” of separation of church and state was being “breached.” I’ll spare you further examples of their faux outrage.
Things got white-hot when the Springfield News-Leader published a story about Hawley’s call for repeal with a headline declaring: “Missouri Baptists oppose repeal of Johnson Amendment.” Of course it was incorrect. I called the newspaper, asking for – and getting – a correction. Such is the nature of an epic U.S. Senate race.
So what is the Johnson Amendment? In 1954, Lyndon Baines Johnson, a Democrat Senator from Texas, was involved in a re-election campaign. Two nonprofit groups opposed him, wanting to limit the treaty-making ability of the president, which Johnson opposed. They produced campaign material supporting Johnson’s opponent. Johnson struck back, introducing a bill, changing the existing Internal Revenue Service (IRS) law in the 501(c)3 section, which covers tax-exempt charitable organizations – including churches. Johnson’s bill passed. As a result, the IRS website says: “The law prohibits political campaign activity by charities and churches by defining a 501(c)3 organization as one ‘which does not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.” It took Congress only a 179 years to tell the Founders they were wrong.
To be honest, Southern Baptist pastors have generally ignored the Johnson Amendment, largely because they address issues, not candidates. Here’s the rub: whether a pastor decides to endorse – or speak against – a candidate in the pulpit ought to be left to him. The government has no right to tell a pastor what he can – and cannot – say to a congregation. The Johnson Amendment is clearly a violation of a pastor’s First Amendment right to freely speak.
Some liberals argue that pastors can speak freely – just not in the pulpit. They believe the IRS should intimidate churches with the loss of its tax-exempt status if pastors do so. Liberals and much of the media have convinced too many churches they will lose their tax-exempt status if they speak in behalf of a candidate. Indeed, the power to tax is the power to destroy. But here is what they will not tell you: no church has ever lost its tax-exempt status over politics. Why? Because the IRS knows it would likely lose in court.
It makes no sense for the government to tax churches because of the incalculable services they provide toward the common good. Imagine our society without hospitals, orphanages, parochial schools, pregnancy resource centers, food pantries, homeless shelters, disaster relief support and a myriad of other services. All provided by people of faith, who do it better than the government.
Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative group that does free legal work in defense of religious liberty, supports the new Free Speech Fairness Act. The bill is designed to restore the First Amendment freedom of speech to pastors and other 501(c)3 organizations’ leaders, while ensuring churches and other non-profits do not become about “dark money” or transition into political action committees. The Act is about freedom of speech. It does not allow 501(c)3 organizations to purchase political campaign ads, or to otherwise create a cash flow of “dark money” for politicians. The House passed the Act earlier this year, but the Senate did not. Should Democrats gain a majority in the House in 2019, the Free Speech Fairness Act will likely be dead for the foreseeable future.
Since 2013, Southern Baptists at our annual meeting have passed five resolutions in support of the First Amendment, which guarantees every American’s right to believe as they wish and to live it out fully without government interference. The preface to the 2000 Baptist Faith & Message (BF&M) says: “Baptists cherish and defend religious liberty, and deny the right of any secular or religious authority to impose a confession of faith upon a church or body of churches.” The confession adds: “The state has no right to impose penalties for religious opinions of any kind.”
I was recently asked by a reporter, if there was one thing I would want people to know about the Johnson Amendment, what would it be? I replied: “Only God is Lord of the conscious, not the government and certainly not the Johnson Amendment.”