The Johnson amendment, and preaching the wrong kingdom.

by K.W. Leslie, 06 February

In the United States we have a Constitutional right to freedom of religion. Since tax status has been specifically used in the past to interfere with unpopular religions, the U.S. Code makes churches tax-exempt.

Yeah, here’s where the legalese comes in. (Hey, I wanna be thorough.) Most churches fall under what we call a 501(c)(3) organization, named for that specific subsection of Title 26 of the United States Code. For your convenience, here it is.

Corporations, and any community chest, fund, or foundation, organized and operated exclusively for religious, charitable, scientific, testing for public safety, literary, or educational purposes, or to foster national or international amateur sports competition (but only if no part of its activities involve the provision of athletic facilities or equipment), or for the prevention of cruelty to children or animals, no part of the net earnings of which inures to the benefit of any private shareholder or individual, no substantial part of the activities of which is carrying on propaganda, or otherwise attempting, to influence legislation (except as otherwise provided in subsection (h)), and which does not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office. 26 USC §501(c)(3)

Basically if you’re a nonprofit church, university, charity, society, or promotional group, you needn’t pay taxes. And people who give you money can deduct their donations from their taxes. Nice, huh? But here’s the catches:

  • All your incoming money shouldn’t be controlled by, or benefit, one individual—like the head pastor. Your church shouldn’t be merely a promotional tool to help your pastor get speaking engagements and sell books and videos. Nor should it spend all its money enriching your pastors, but do little to no ministry.
  • The church shouldn’t spend “a substantial part” of its money (and other laws define how big is “substantial”) on pushing its politics: Promoting causes or lobbying government.
  • The church can’t promote a political candidate or campaign.

And of course churches aren’t permitted to break other laws. None of that “We have freedom in Christ; no government can tell us what to do” malarkey like we find in cults. Either prove the law’s unconstitutional, or follow it like a good American. (And for those of you who are paranoid about Islam: This applies to Muslims too. I know you don’t believe me; I can’t help what you refuse to believe.)

Now, why am I spelling all this out? ’Cause last Thursday during the National Prayer Breakfast, President Donald Trump repeated his intent, which he voiced throughout his presidential campaign, to do away with the “Johnson amendment,” the part of 501(c)(3) which forbids churches from promoting candidates and campaigns. There’s currently a bill in Congress, House Resolution 6195, the “Free Speech Fairness Act,” which’ll overturn it.

The Johnson amendment is named after Lyndon Johnson—who was still a senator when he got it passed in 1954. It applies to every 501(c)(3) nonprofit; not just churches. It wasn’t controversial when it was first passed, because back in the ’50s most pastors recognized politics is a dirty business, and didn’t want to soil themselves in it.

But times have changed, and a lot of ’em nowadays roll around in politics like pigs in poo.

What about Christ’s limits on our freedom of speech?

As citizens of the United States, pastors, and every Christian, have every right to endorse candidates and causes. Freedom of speech is one of the very few things our secular society considers holy. People may hate what you have to say, and pitch a fit when you say it. Bosses might fire you, Twitter may ban you, and business partners could shun you. (And maybe they should.) But you’re free to say it without any government crackdown, which is the important thing.

But in our churches, the purpose of every Christian pulpit is to proclaim Jesus and his kingdom.

Not the kingdom of this world. Not pretenders to Jesus’s throne, who claim they’ll be good stewards of his will, and regularly prove they’re not. Who are actually beholden to the people who voted ’em in. Not our Lord.

In our churches, our duty is to proclaim Jesus. We have no business proclaiming anything else. We set aside our right to say whatever we wish. Endorse any other throne, principality, or power, and it’s treason to our King. Or, to put it in Christianese, blasphemy.

Problem is, many wrong-headed Christians think because we have freedom of speech in every other arena, it should apply to our messages, sermons, lessons, and homilies. There, they’re wrong. We actually don’t have freedom of speech in the pulpit: We’re functioning as an agent of Christ Jesus. We’re there to proclaim God’s word. Not our own. We’re there to promote God’s Messiah, not our favorite candidates. Not even the current president and other government leaders, even when we pray for them. Praying for them is acknowledgement they’re in charge, and a request that God aid ’em in ruling righteously. Not endorsement for them to get re-elected. But you and I both know the way partisan Christians pray, plenty of prayers for our leaders are full-on endorsements.

We’re to endorse and support Jesus alone.

The reason preachers wanna endorse candidates, is because they honestly think their candidate will achieve God’s will better than the other guy. They honestly think they’re standing up for God’s will; that the Holy Spirit wants ’em to endorse their guy. But all these assumptions are entirely wrong. God already anointed his Messiah. Ac 2.36 He wants Jesus to rule. Not our guys. When Jesus returns, he’ll overthrow every last one of them.

Y’see, when we endorse a candidate—when we put our hopes in a politician to sort out our country’s problems, and make America great again (whatever we figure “great” meant) we’ve put our hopes into a sinful, flawed human instead of Jesus. We expect the politician to fix society, and set aside our own duty to obey Jesus and fix society ourselves.

Jesus instructs us to love our neighbors. Mk 12.31 He doesn’t expect us to farm that role out to our government. Yes, governments can do it more efficiently. (And kinda have to, since we Christians won’t always step up.) But government solutions are quick fixes, and Jesus wants permanent fixes. He wants us to stop the destructive behavior in our communities by changing people’s lives. Government, in contrast, bans stuff and sends in people to police the ban. Treats the symptoms, not the true issues of personal hurt and brokenness.

Doesn’t matter if you’re left-wing or right-wing: Both camps’ political solutions to society’s problems are wrong. Neither is about surrender to Jesus. And the pulpit must never endorse anything but surrender to Jesus.

Yeah, we’re full of excuses why we endorse ’em anyway:

  • “But my guy’s more moral than the other guy.”
  • “But the other guy will make our country so much worse.”
  • “But the other guy stands for things Jesus can’t stand for.”
  • “But my guy’s a devout Christian and we should support our own.”

All these claims and more are used to justify putting politics ahead of God, to preach division instead of peace, to be partisan instead of loving, to steal God’s pulpit and promote a competing kingdom.

Sometimes candidates themselves take the pulpit. Pastors actually allow them to preach during a service. I’ve seen this done way too often. Sometimes the candidate knows better than to proclaim anyone other than Jesus, and actually delivers a message about Jesus, the gospel, and the kingdom; and good on them. But usually they can’t resist the temptation of trying to sway God’s people to follow them instead of him, and disguise it as following them both. As if Jesus shares his throne with anyone.

If your pastor uses the pulpit to push candidates—whether blatantly or subtly—you need to object. Even though you might totally agree with your pastor’s politics: You still need to object. Politics have no business in the pulpit. That’s Jesus’s pulpit. Giving it over to any power but God’s is treason.

It’s gonna corrupt the church.

There are already plenty of churches which are obviously Democratic or Republican in their politics. They endorse everything and everyone they can, disguising their language so they can get away with it. (“I’m not telling you who to vote for, but I’m never gonna vote for [things opposition party endorses]; I’m voting for [things their party endorses]. As should you!”) Although some of ’em blatantly ignore the Johnson amendment and endorse their guys anyway, figuring if everyone keeps their mouths shut, the IRS will never find out what they’re doing.

I still say the Johnson amendment is a good thing. It reminds pastors to steer away from the kingdom of this world. It holds back those law-abiding pastors who nonetheless lack self-control, who’d never hold their tongues unless their tax-exempt status were at risk, who sold their souls to their political party years ago, who covet earthly power “for God’s sake” yet aren’t fooling anyone.

Without it, they’d immediately transform their churches into a place that’s no longer a safe space for anyone in the opposition party, and alienate those people away from Jesus.

Hey, if you’re trying to bring someone to your church, and they’re a diehard partisan… but the pastor just won’t stop ripping on their candidate, or singing the praises of their guy, I guarantee you the partisan’s not sticking around. I’ve stupidly caused people to leave bible studies because I wouldn’t stop ranting about some misbehaving politico. And I’ve likewise left the building because the preacher chose to proclaim his party’s pet issues than Christ Jesus’s grace and compassion. Partisanship’s a work of the flesh. Ga 5.20 It divides what Jesus is trying to put together.

So if your fellow Christians absolutely all for the president and Congress eliminating this rule, and letting the churches become as partisan as they wanna be… well, now you know which kingdom they’ve chosen to back.