IRS should not enforce silence from the pulpit

FILE - In this July 30, 1954, file photo, then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson, D-Texas, holds news conference in Washington. Moving on a campaign promise, President Donald Trump said Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017, he will work for the repeal of the Johnson Amendment to free religious organizations from constraints on political activity (AP Photo/Charles Gorry, File)
Then-Senator Lyndon Johnson, seen here at a news conference in 1954, was author of the amendment bearing his name that prohibits churches and other tax-exempt groups from endorsing political candidates.

President Trump recently promised, with typical bombast, to “totally destroy” a law known as the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits churches and other tax-exempt groups from endorsing political candidates.

Total destruction is not a good idea. But carefully crafted reform — giving pastors more leeway to endorse from the pulpit, without turning churches into partisan political machines — is a good idea.

The 1954 law is named after its sponsor, then-Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, who saw the measure as a way to handcuff a Democratic primary rival who had the support of a couple of nonprofit groups that were suggesting LBJ was a Communist.


Johnson was not targeting churches and other houses of worship, but the law does apply to them. And for years now, religious leaders — especially conservatives — have been complaining that the measure crimps their speech.

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Pastors, rabbis, and imams have been on the front lines of some of the most important social movements in American history, from the abolition of slavery to the fight for civil rights. And no law restricts their ability to speak out on matters of conscience.

But in our democracy, turning talk into real change requires at least modest engagement with electoral politics. We rely on elected officials, however imperfect, to turn our moral vision into reality — and religious leaders should be able to speak out on which candidates they believe are best suited to the task.

Supporters of the Johnson Amendment are quick to point out that pastors are free to endorse candidates now, as long as they are willing to give up their churches’ tax-exempt status. But that’s too flip. Tax-exempt status is critical to the health of the American congregation — and to religious life itself.

That’s not to say the law should be eliminated altogether. Strip away all of its restrictions and we could be left with a new vessel for dark money in our politics, with big donors pouring tax-deductible donations into newly partisan churches and nonprofit groups.


Instead, Trump should pursue a narrowly tailored revision that carves out a preacher’s right to endorse candidates from the pulpit. Alternatively, he could just order the Internal Revenue Service to interpret the law narrowly, giving pastors more leeway on Sundays.

The IRS rarely cracks down on church endorsements anyway, even in the face of open defiance. Why not make it official, so religious leaders no longer have to fret?

Many pastors would still decide not to take sides in elections. And that’s fine. There can be real value in making the church a refuge from our noisy politics. There can be real value in silence amid the cacophony.

But the IRS shouldn’t be making such determinations, and that silence should not be required by federal law.