Lyndon Baines Johnson was a wheeling, dealing, scoundrel of a politician who connived and backstabbed his way to the top of the political heap before falling so far in public opinion that he passed up the chance to win reelection to the presidency because he knew that the American people would hand him an electoral defeat at the climax of his political life.
This, according to his biographer Robert Caro, is the man whose amendment muzzles right-wing pastors from speaking openly about political affairs to this day.
The Johnson Amendment, which the then-senator from Texas got passed in 1954 during his ascent to power on Capitol Hill, precludes churches from making political endorsements or condemnations. It is noteworthy that at the time and ever since then, left-wing religious leaders have felt totally free to agitate for Marxism from the pulpit. The so-called civil rights movement, anti-war movement, nuclear freeze movement, women’s liberation movement, and more have been spearheaded by the alliance of media, academia, big business, big government, and churches. While they may sometimes forgo outright endorsements of political candidates, these leftist ministers of unholy untruth have undermined Western civilization through explicitly political activity.
Meanwhile, conservatives have been reduced to platitudes about the evils of abortion, homosexuality, pornography, and the like. The Moral Majority of the 1980s and Christian Coalition of the 1990s were the zenith of conservative, evangelical political power — and even then conservatives operated knowing that the ax of the Internal Revenue Service could fall on their necks at any time. The Johnson Amendment empowered the IRS with the ability to impose a tax on any church that spoke openly about politics by stripping said congregation of its tax-exempt status.
Please note that there are good arguments to be made that churches shouldn’t be incorporating under the Internal Revenue Code, and thereby could avoid this whole problem in the first place — but that is a different discussion altogether. At present, nearly 100 percent of religious institutions do incorporate and operate under IRS authority, so the Johnson Amendment is vitally significant to their financial and legal well-being.
The well-publicized IRS inquisition of Tea Party and conservative groups during the Obama Administration proved that pastors’ fears about Marxist retribution at the hands of the IRS were well-founded.
It was not until 2008, when cultural degeneracy had reached the boiling point, that pastors openly defied the Johnson Amendment by naming Barack Obama as the candidate people should not vote for, and by endorsing other right-wingish candidates for the presidency. The conservative religious liberties group, Alliance Defending Freedom, began the push to repeal the Johnson Amendment on its annual Pulpit Freedom Sundays.
Eight years later, a right-wing candidate took up the cause of religious liberty by singlehandedly pledging to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment. It is interesting that Donald Trump did this, according to sources close to him, without being lobbied to do so. He apparently came to his views based on the obvious unfairness of a law barring religious leaders from speaking their minds on important issues.
Critics fear that opening up the pulpit to political endorsements will distort the function of the church. That is a reasonable fear. The church is a separate institution from the state and should remain independent from it in order to fulfill its separate, divinely-mandated purposes.
However, two facts are important to remember. The first is that the church and the state are to work in concert with one another, since both are divinely ordained and accountable to the same God. It’s not as if God wants a state, or church, that ignores the existence of Him or of one another. The second fact is that many churches on the left ignore the Johnson Amendment already. Left-wing groups already lobby pastors (and vice versa) to use the power of the pulpit to recruit people and lend moral legitimacy to their causes. That one side of the political spectrum should do so freely, while the other operates in the shadows, is unfair.
It is also a result of the different theological standards of churches on the left and right. On the left, theology is simply two scoops of humanism with Bible verses sprinkled on top. Everything serves the exaltation of fallen man, from the media to business to church to state to family. In their own way, they are very theonomic — albeit with a law-word from a false god. On the right, even the most simple pastors understand the distinction between church and state, and want each to do its job well. They also tend to put an emphasis on personal evangelism, which can get sidetracked by political or other non-conversion-related issues should the pulpit become subservient to those issues. In my own experience I have personally seen a liberal minister openly endorse Democratic candidates while literally standing behind the pulpit. On the contrary, I have often had conservative ministers tell me privately that they were uncomfortable with endorsing candidates whose views they supported, for fear that they would lose the ability to perform their evangelical, ecclesiastical duties well. I don’t need to criticize these pastors or argue for the necessity of ministerial endorsements of political candidates in order to say, like Trump, that the Johnson Amendment is unfair and should be repealed. If it is repealed, in many cases conservative pastors will still refuse to openly take political stands, for the aforementioned reasons. We won’t lose anything by repealing the Johnson Amendment, because ministers on the left will simply give more explicit voice to what they’ve already been doing. Nothing new there. However, the ax of the IRS will not hang over the heads of conservatives if they should occasionally take a stand or make an endorsement.
By removing the threat of punitive actions, a repeal of the Johnson Amendment would aid the liberty of the church, encourage conservative political activism, and bring into existence new forms of faith-based, right-wing activism which we probably haven’t seen in decades.
You know, the kind that LBJ hated and feared.