Last month, Republican U.S. Senate candidate Josh Hawley made an intriguing — and politically loaded — proposal to a group of conservative religious leaders in St. Louis.
Hawley, who’s in a neck-and-neck race with Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill, said he wanted to do away with a long-standing provision in the federal tax code that prohibits religious organizations and pastors from endorsing political candidates.
It’s the same proposal that President Donald Trump supports. In fact, the president vowed last year to “totally destroy” what’s known as the Johnson Amendment, a promise that so far has gone unfulfilled.
Never mind that the most Americans oppose the idea of churches endorsing political candidates — and so do many faith leaders. In fact, the Pew Research Center found that fully two-thirds of Americans are against the notion of churches backing one candidate over another.
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That Hawley supports overthrow of the Johnson Amendment is known because The St. Louis Post-Dispatch obtained audio of his Aug. 21 address sponsored by the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian group.
“Religious liberty is under attack in this country, and it’s a terrible thing. It’s a dangerous thing,” Hawley said in the speech. Since then, he has called the Johnson Amendment “unconstitutional,” adding: “There is no excuse to silence churches and to silence pastors. That needs to end right now.”
Except that no church is being silenced, and neither is any religious leader. Pastors can speak on the issues of the day. They can criticize leaders. They just can’t engage in political campaigns and formally endorse or oppose one contender over another. If they do, they risk losing their tax-exempt status.
Doing away with the Johnson Amendment, as we’ve opined previously, could result in giving wealthy Americans a tax break for political donations they make to religious organizations. It also would inevitably lead to the creation of hundreds of bogus “charities” that would then wade into our already convoluted political system. Nonprofits such as the American Red Cross might be pressured to endorse in races, too.
Hawley, the Missouri attorney general, is giving every indication that he’s seizing upon this issue in hopes of winning over conservatives voters, some of whom have been reluctant to get behind him. A push to wipe out the Johnson Amendment fizzled after attempts were made to include a repeal provision in the December 2017 tax bill and in a federal spending bill that was passed in March.
So, the repeal effort doesn’t appear to be going anywhere at the moment. But Hawley needs every vote he can get, so he’s reaching for another hot-button issue.
The Johnson Amendment was named for its 1954 legislative sponsor, then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson. It stipulates that religious and nonprofit organizations can lose their tax-exempt status if they engage in campaign activity “on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”
In a statement to the Associated Press, Hawley said Democrats, including McCaskill, “need to stop trying to muzzle people of faith.” McCaskill opposes repeal of the Johnson Amendment.
But no one is muzzling anybody. If a pastor chooses to endorse a candidate, he can do that, though at the risk of losing his tax-free status. Hawley should stop playing politics on this issue.
The Johnson Amendment has largely kept politics out of the pulpit for more than a half-century. Undermining the nation’s religious and social fabric for a few votes isn’t worth the price.