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The U.S. speaker of the House wants to allow faith leaders to be more involved in politics

By Mark Brodie
Published: Wednesday, February 7, 2024 - 12:31pm
Updated: Wednesday, February 7, 2024 - 3:14pm

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What role should religious institutions and clergy-members play in politics?

It’s a question that’s often debated, especially close to elections. And Adam Chodorow explained to The Show that the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives wants to allow faith leaders to be more involved.

Chodorow is a law professor at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University and has written about something called the Johnson Amendment. He spoke about it — and a proposed change to it — with The Show and the conversation started with what exactly the Johnson Amendment is, what it does and what it precludes.

Man in dark suit and red tie at podium
Gage Skidmore/CC BY 2.0
U.S. Speaker of the House Mike Johnson on Oct. 31, 2023.

Full conversation

ADAM CHODOROW: The Johnson Amendment came into the tax code in the ‘60s as a result of then Sen. Johnson — Lyndon Johnson — getting actually ticked off that there were a bunch of nonprofit organizations essentially campaigning against him. And what it does is it precludes nonprofits from getting involved in elections from endorsing candidates, from lobbying. 

MARK BRODIE: You had written fairly recently about the now Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, no relation to Lyndon Johnson or the Johnson Amendment, and he has a particular interest in this part of law. It sounds like he's not too keen on it.

CHODOROW:  No, he's actually quite opposed and has sponsored legislation every year he's been in Congress to amend the Johnson Amendment, and his particular focus is not on nonprofits generally, although his amendment would do that, but rather on churches because churches are a nonprofit under the tax code. And so they're covered by this amendment as well.

BRODIE: So under Speaker Johnson's plan, would churches and other religious institutions then be free to formally endorse or oppose candidates in elections? 

CHODOROW: Yes.

BRODIE: And what kind of impact might that have? I mean, how would that be different, from a practical standpoint, than what happens now in churches and synagogues and mosques and other houses of worship?

CHODOROW: Right, so, one of the interesting things about churches and law and the Johnson Amendment is that much of law addresses moral issues and concerns and these are things that ministers, rabbis, et cetera, speak out on, regularly, and we want them to speak out on that. The Johnson Amendment doesn't say you can't, what it says is there's a line, and that line is you can't go so far as to endorse or get involved. And what Speaker Johnson's proposed amendment to the amendment would do would be to open the door to allow churches to allow ministers from the pulpit to say, “Praise the Lord and I hereby endorse candidate X,” which would, I think, turbocharge the sort of connection between law and religion.

BRODIE: Well, because it seems as though that line, maybe, that connection has been there and is currently there in terms of like, if you go to a particular congregation, you might know where they stand on climate change or on reproductive rights or on any number of other sorts of social issues. What you're saying is that, by doing away with the Johnson Amendment, it would just take it a step further. I wonder, if practically speaking, is it that big of a deal to allow clergy members to endorse candidates as opposed to maybe endorse positions on particular issues?

CHODOROW:  That's a great question, and I think there are a couple of concerns. So let's talk about the policy underlying the Johnson Amendment. As I mentioned earlier, Sen. Johnson did it on some level in a fit of pique, but there's actually a real policy concern underneath which is that we have taken the position as a society that we don't endorse political spending, right? So we don't subsidize it. When you give to the Democrats or you give to the Republicans, you don't get to deduct that. And so what that means is that we have to prevent nonprofit organizations from getting involved in politics otherwise we blow a hole in that policy. 

So that's the first policy, but there's a second really important policy out there, which is that we're not just trying to protect politics, right? We're also trying to protect churches because religion is about eternal truth, it is about right and wrong, and politics is about compromise. It is about making deals and, and once you pick a team, suddenly you start to forgive the sins of your team and find the sins in the other team. So a great example of that would be, when Bill Clinton was being impeached, moral character mattered, and there were a number of religious groups that went on record saying “morality matters” and “the moral character of our candidates matters.”

With Donald Trump, suddenly you had many of these same organizations saying, “Oh, the, the moral character of our leaders is irrelevant.” And, and so, the fear is that once you let ministers take that next step and start endorsing candidates, suddenly they're on a team, and they're supposed to be on team, if you're Christian, team Jesus, but suddenly they become team Republican or team Democrat. And that, I think, is probably bad for religion generally.

BRODIE: So you mentioned that, while not the main focus of Speaker Johnson's efforts, that this proposed change would also deal with other nonprofits. I'm curious how that might affect not only politics but also maybe charitable giving and the tax code and tax collections more broadly.

CHODOROW: Well, I think that what we would end up with is even more so than today, the politicization of tax exempt organizations. So the Sierra Club is concerned with the environment, it's concerned with climate change, those tend to trend more Democratic than Republican. But there are plenty of Republicans who believe in climate change and who care about the environment. But if they come out and endorse the Democratic candidate for president, you may well end up scaring away Republicans who say, “I care about the environment, but I don't want my money going to an organization that opposes my positions in other areas.” And so if we allow nonprofits to start getting involved in politics, in that way, I think we will further splinter, sort of, the politics of the United States.

So, that's the first piece of the question you asked. The second piece is, well, how does it affect money flows? Well, people will start donating more and more to organizations that reflect, not necessarily their care for the environment but their care for their party.

BRODIE: I'm curious again though about the practical impact of this because a group like the Sierra Club like, and many others, I don't want to single them out, but a lot of these nonprofit groups, they put out scorecards, for example, rating legislators on pick your issue, the environment, on guns, on abortion, on any number of issues. And if you read them, you kind of get a sense of which candidates, that particular group would support and which they wouldn't. The candidates getting the “As,” you would imagine that group would support. The candidates getting the “Fs,” you would think they wouldn't. So, is it really that big of a deal to say to the Sierra Club, or whichever group it is, “Yeah, just go ahead and just make it official like we know, you support this candidate, just say so.”

CHODOROW: I mean, that's the argument for those who support this amendment. They would say, “Look, churches, other organizations, they're already at the line,” and, in fact, if you read the text of, of the proposed law, it, it only allows de minimis expenditures. And so what Speaker Johnson and his supporters would say is “we're not saying they're going to go out and, and conduct polling or door knocking, right? We're not paying people to do stuff. We just want to be able to mention it and just go a little further.”

I think the reality is that it's not just a little further, right? Once you've taken that step, you get deeper and deeper down the partisan trail, and I think it will actually affect donations and it will affect the behavior of these organizations because they will be more about electing this person than about the cause itself.

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