No place for Washington to punish churches over politics

No place for Washington to punish churches over politics
© Greg Nash

This past weekend looked a lot like 1954. As Rasmussen reports more than half of Americans attended church on Easter and an even higher percentage of American Jews participated in a Passover Seder according to JNS. This is encouraging considering that barely one-in-three Americans attend church or synagogue in a given week. Back in 1954, almost half of Americans were attending a place of worship on a given weekend. It was also the last year those places of worship were allowed to engage in political activity.

The Johnson Amendment was passed to prevent churches and other 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations from engaging in political activity. The boundaries for these organizations are clear, and most responsible entities follow the rules so as not to jeopardize their exempt status.

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Most campaign finance reformers agree that big political money being run through churches — or worse yet invented churches set up for that purpose is a problem. The Johnson Amendment goes too far. It focuses on silencing religious leaders from saying anything about their faith that could have political implications. This restriction is a direct hit on the First Amendment protection of the free enterprise of religion (which is actually in the Constitution, not a right that was “discovered” centuries after the founders passed away.)

 

We now have a ridiculous system under which huge sums of secret money can be funneled into U.S. elections from anywhere in the world through unverified credit card contributions, LLCs or other means — while a young pastor or rabbi could cost their place of worship their tax status by talking about the relevance of a tenant of their faith to a modern political situation or campaign.

In short this is part of a campaign finance system that is not only broken but backward — it makes it easy to cheat and hard for the average American to participate.

The progressives who want to muzzle Christians out of the discussion and the self-proclaimed conservatives who want to let government contractors exchange millions of dollars in secret campaign contributions are both contributors to the problem,

As efforts to reform the broken campaign finance system continue, the Johnson Amendment is back on the table as part of the growing movement to make elections and policy decisions transparent and fair.

Many, including Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard Pence'Queer Eye' star recounts his visit to White House Pence knocks Sherrod Brown in Ohio, boosts Renacci Key conservative presses for shield law after seizure of NYT reporter’s records MORE, have argued that these campaign finance rules prevent free speech. In late February as part of his remarks before the National Religious Broadcasters, he stated that the Trump Administration will “continue to free up the pulpits of this country by repealing the Johnson Amendment, because freedom shouldn’t stop at the doors of our churches, synagogues, or places of worship."

The vice president is not alone in his efforts to reform the campaign finance system, as many free speech advocates (on all sides of the political spectrum) are joining together to add their voice of concern over silencing pastors and other religious and non-profit leaders.

As history has taught us, silencing religion as an alternative to state power is a favorite tool of dictators.

If a Catholic priest wants to endorse a pro-life candidate or a pastor is pushing for civil rights legislation, both should be allowed to do so. However, if any church money is spent on political activity (such as ads, phone banks, organizing to influence) this activity must be made public in the same way direct donations and in-kind contributions are publicized. These disclosures will also prevent large donors from circumventing the campaign contribution limits. 

An even easier way to prevent fallout from Johnson Amendment repeal is to encourage donations directly to candidates or to political parties over the super PACs or secret 527 groups that have a tendency to disappear the day after an election.

Candidates, political parties, and even the organizations which they chose to align with (if properly disclosed) can be held accountable at a ballot box. Secret organizations and scam PACs cannot.

Accountability is the key to Johnson Amendment repeal. Without the accountability, coordination, and disclosures, arguments can be made for the Free Speech killing Johnson Amendment — and that should be concerning to us all.

John Pudner is the executive director of Take Back Our Republic, an organization advocating for conservative solutions to campaign finance reform.