Let's Talk About The Johnson Amendment And The Religious Freedom Boogeyman

On Thursday morning, Donald Trump addressed the National Prayer Breakfast, first by bragging about his ratings as host of “The Apprentice,” then attacking Arnold Schwarzenegger, for some bizarre reason.

Along the way, he promised those in attendance that he would “… get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment.”

Ok. So is that a good thing?

I’ve seen some describe this as “awesome” and a step in the right direction for religious freedom in this nation.

I’ve got some thoughts on that, and they may not be exactly in line with what some other Christians are thinking.

First, we must distinguish what the Johnson Amendment does and does not do.

The Johnson Amendment is an amendment to the IRS code, enacted into law in 1954. It prohibits 501(c) (3) organizations from endorsing or opposing specific candidates, or from making campaign contributions to specific candidates, under threat of losing their tax-exempt status.

Johnson inserted this tidbit in the IRS code as a strike at an opponent who was using tax-exempt organizations to participate in campaign fund raising.

What it doesn’t do is prevent churches from having voter registration drives.

It doesn’t prevent pastors from speaking out on sensitive issues, such as gay marriage or abortion.

Pastors can speak out about government corruption or anything of that nature.

They just can’t endorse or raise money for a candidate from the pulpit.

So why is Donald Trump so caught up on pushing to end the Johnson Amendment?

Back in June 2016, Trump said to a group of faith leaders:

 “I think maybe that will be my greatest contribution to Christianity — and other religions — is to allow you, when you talk religious liberty, to go and speak openly, and if you like somebody or want somebody to represent you, you should have the right to do it,” he said. “You don’t have any religious freedom, if you think about it.”

When Trump spoke last Thursday at the prayer breakfast, he wrongly suggested that the Johnson Amendment impeded the rights of Christians to worship according to their beliefs.

Trump said that his reason for opposing the Johnson Amendment is that it impinges on the American “right to worship according to our own beliefs” — apparently describing campaign participation as a form of worship.

And that is where I have an issue.

I actually have mixed feelings about the Johnson Amendment.

Make no mistake, at its conception, the purpose for the Johnson Amendment was flawed, although I can see how Johnson, then a senator, would want to use it to staunch a source of income for his opponent.

It was politics, and with anything in politics, things can morph into ideological monsters in the wrong hands.

The ACLU and other liberal groups have used the Johnson Amendment as a boogeyman to threaten churches around the nation. No doubt, these groups count on American churches not to know the limitations of the Amendment, or the freedoms they still have, as provided to them by the First Amendment of the Constitution.

Our churches not only have the right, but they have a duty to teach and preach (always in love) about the sin and brokenness that is abortion.

There are Biblical constructs regarding sexual relationships, including homosexuality, and if the church is doing its job, it is sounding a continual drumbeat against those things that the Bible calls corrupt.

The Johnson Amendment cannot prevent a pastor from standing in the pulpit and teaching about Sodom and Gomorrah, or teaching that it was God who ordained the first marriage, between Adam and Eve.

The Johnson Amendment cannot stop a preacher from exhorting his congregation to embrace life, to take the words of Jeremiah 1:5 to heart:

“Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.” (KJV)

These are the things pastors need to be teaching, consistently.

But the Johnson Amendment has a completely coincidental good purpose, and it is one that I don’t expect Trump to recognize, although I’m saddened that so many Christians will look at Trump’s promise to end the Amendment as necessary.

In the early days of America’s settlement, churches doubled as school buildings and town meeting halls. In that way, politics and faith crossed, but no more than that. When it was time to worship, it was time to worship.

In the years since the Johnson Amendment was enacted, it has served to squelch eager politicians, looking to enrich their campaign funds by taking up church time to pass the hat.

Oh, it happens. Mainly in liberal churches, where the message is more about social justice than spiritual wellness.

It should not happen in churches that have a heart for the Word of God.

No man deserves to be exalted from the pulpit, except the One the church is meant to exalt.

The Johnson Amendment has served as a wall to hold back the world from encroaching on the heart of the church.

My fear has been that the American church has become cold and has fallen asleep. Too much of the world has infected the church, and the idea of bringing down the barrier that has, for most part, kept our churches from becoming very secular, over-politicized, and more intent on worldly things than things of God bothers me, a great deal.

I saw too much of it during the primary, where faith in politics held more influence over the vote of those who identify as Christians than faith in God.

John 2:13-17 gives account of Jesus traveling to the temple in Jerusalem, only to find that it had been turned into a flea market.

“13 When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. 15So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” 17His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”c(NIV)

Jesus was incensed that men had perverted the purpose of the house of worship. How much more would our God be troubled by Christians allowing for His houses of worship to be converted into campaign stops for men peddling man-made systems that have not saved a single soul?

I’m not saying Christians should divorce themselves from the political process. I’ve never believed that. In fact, I’m saying they should be more involved. I want to see godly men and women in the process, putting together voter guides, running for public office, and most of all, carrying their faith into the voting booth.

What I don’t want to see is a church that forgets her first love and has her message to the world watered down.

Whether the Johnson Amendment stays or goes, the message of the Christian church should always be one that calls out sin boldly, loves without limits, and lifts up the name of Jesus as the only way.

Trump is wrong to say the Johnson Amendment doesn’t allow for us to worship according to our beliefs. Our “beliefs” should not be in government, but in God.