Surprise! New York Times frames Johnson Amendment 'explainer' in pure Kellerism

It's a given, isn't it, that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. It seems also a given that The New York Times will drench itself in Kellerism -- the emerging journalism doctrine that says many moral, cultural and religious issues are already decided, so there's no need for journalists to be balanced in their coverage.

The paper moved at warp speed to "explain" -- and I use that term loosely -- a promise made by President Donald J. Trump at the 65th National Prayer Breakfast on the morning of Feb. 2 in Washington, D.C. The vow was that the 1954 amendment to the tax code known as the "Johnson Amendment" would be "destroyed" during his term.

So what is this Johnson Amendment? And why is it a hot-button issue?

Never fear: The New York Times is here to Explain It All For You:

It is one of the brightest lines in the legal separation between religion and politics. Under the provision, which was made in 1954, tax-exempt entities like churches and charitable organizations are unable to directly or indirectly participate in any political campaign on behalf of, or in opposition to, any candidate. Specifically, ministers are restricted from endorsing or opposing candidates from the pulpit. If they do, they risk losing their tax-exempt status.
Considered uncontroversial at the time, it was passed by a Republican Congress and signed into law by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a Republican. Today, however, many Republicans want to repeal it.

Wwweeellll, sort of. The Internal Revenue Service, which monitors the activities of tax-exempt groups, including churches, specifies that the rules apply to "all section 501(c)(3) organizations" and not just churches, mosques or synagogues. In other words, the reference to "entities like churches and charitable organizations" is a bit on the vague side of things.

Some history here: In 1954, then-Senator "Landslide" Lyndon Johnson was facing his first re-election to the Senate after squeaking to an 87-vote win over popular former Texas governor Coke Stevenson in 1948.

Johnson's political stances riled some on the right, particularly oil magnate H.K. Hunt and newspaper publisher Frank Gannett. Each separately formed tax-exempt groups to distribute information against Johnson, alleging the Senator was "soft" on Communism.

Neither Hunt nor Gannett founded a church, however. But because the Johnson Amendment -- to the Internal Revenue Code -- blocked political speech for all 501(c)3s, pulpiteers were suddenly swept up in the rules. The "explanation" continues:

Mr. Trump promised he would work to repeal the Johnson Amendment as part of his extensive outreach efforts to religious conservatives, a group that took a long time to warm to his candidacy. Eliminating the measure has been a goal of the right. Conservatives have argued that it violates the protections of free speech and free exercise that the First Amendment extends to houses of worship. Courts have not agreed.

Though it apparently seems this way it isn't only conservatives who've felt the sting of the IRS' implementation of the Johnson Amendment. In 2005, All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California, was investigated by the agency after a 2004 guest sermon by former rector the Rev. George F. Regas inveighing against the war policies of then-President George W. Bush. That's hardly a Jerry Falwell-style homily, is it?

It appears that The New York Times may not have reported on the All Saints case, later closed without any sanctions on the church. But I found the Los Angeles Times story quickly via Google. A reporter or editor with some knowledge of the broader issue should easily have done the same. It also would have been easy to reference the years of debates about the endorsement of candidates by African-American church leaders.

Yes, the IRS rules created by Johnson Amendment have been used against conservative congregations, such as the Church at Pierce Creek, near Binghamton, New York, which lost its tax exemption for running a newspaper advertisement headed "Christians Beware" against the 1992 candidacy of Bill Clinton.

Perhaps one of the more stunning approaches to enforcing the Johnson Amendment's provisions came in 2013 when the Internal Revenue Service audited the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Samaritan's Purse, a charity run by Graham's son Franklin. Both father and son had sponsored 2012 newspaper advertisements in North Carolina supporting a state ballot measure upholding the traditional definition of marriage.

Note: The Grahams were speaking out on an issue in public life, one with obvious links to centuries of religious beliefs and tradition. Speaking out on a doctrinal issue is not the same thing as endorsing a political candidate. As a 2013 Washington Times editorial noted, while the ads urged "Americans to vote for candidates supporting 'biblical values,'” specific candidates were neither endorsed or opposed. It's when a church (or any other nonprofit) makes a statement endorsing or opposing a specific candidate that the Johnson Amendment rules come into play.

One more thing, as a statement of my own convictions: The Times also could have "explained" that for the first 165 years of the U.S. Constitution, clergy of any and all stripes could say, from the pulpit, anything for or against a candidate. Such liberty even withstood the withering radio attacks of the Rev. Charles E. Coughlin, a Roman Catholic priest who also had a parish church. It has only been in the 63 years since "Landslide Lyndon" worked to assure his re-election that Constitutional guarantees of free speech have been denied to clergy and their congregations.

In implying that the Johnson Amendment only impacts churches with conservative doctrinal views, The New York Times frames the issue poorly and obscures the heart of the issue. You see, churches on the left and right have felt the IRS' hand on their shoulder because a freshman Texas Senator once got his way.

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