Potential impact of Johnson Amendment repeal: Associated Press delves a little more deeply

Last year, I wrote about the Johnson Amendment -- the 1954 law that President Donald Trump has vowed to "totally destroy" -- in a piece for Christianity Today's ChurchLawandTax.com project.

My article was titled "Avoiding the elephant (or donkey) in the pulpit." 

In that story, some pastors noted a difference -- in their view -- between (1) touching on biblical issues that some might label political and (2) taking overtly partisan stands.

This is a long chunk of material, but I think readers will find it useful in looking at some new reporting by The Associated Press. OK, here we go:

Dean Inserra doesn’t back down from preaching on political issues. Neither does Inserra, founding pastor of City Church in Tallahassee, Florida, believe in partisanship from the pulpit. How exactly does the 35-year-old pastor manage to address politics without becoming partisan?
“I’m unashamed and quick to speak on issues,” the Southern Baptist pastor said, suggesting that cultural concerns such as racial reconciliation, immigration, sexuality, and poverty “are spiritual issues before they’re political issues.”
“If we stay in the Word, two things are going to happen,” Inserra said. “One, we won’t be able to avoid speaking on political issues because they’re listed throughout Scripture. Two, we’re not going to be accused of being partisan or political because even our biggest critic will have to conclude. . . that we’re just teaching what the Bible says.”
Inserra serves a politically diverse congregation of about 1,000 people in Florida’s capital city. His audience each Sunday is a mix of college students, young professionals, and state government employees -- both Democrats and Republicans.
To avoid partisanship, Inserra said he focuses on the Bible -- and tries to be consistent in how he applies the Scriptures, whether talking about abortion or Syrian refugees.
“To me, immigration and abortion can come out of the same breath because they’re both life issues,” said Inserra, who started City Church when he was 26. “Maybe two of the most vulnerable people in our society are, one, the unborn child, and two, the refugee.
“If we’re always finding ourselves perfectly siding with one party as a Christian,” he added, “we’re probably more in that party than we are Christian when it comes to our views.”’

Wait. There's more. In that piece, I explained:

The Johnson Amendment -- named for then-Texas Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson -- was added to the IRS code in 1954. The amendment prohibits churches from intervening in election campaigns on behalf of candidates, said Corwin Smidt, a research fellow for the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “To do so risks the loss of the church’s tax-exempt status,” Smidt said. “Though the amendment was largely uncontroversial at its inception, it has become, in more recent years, somewhat more contentious.”
Specifically, the code states:
Under the Internal Revenue Code, all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity. Violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.
Certain activities or expenditures may not be prohibited depending on the facts and circumstances. For example, certain voter education activities (including presenting public forums and publishing voter education guides) conducted in a non-partisan manner do not constitute prohibited political campaign activity. In addition, other activities intended to encourage people to participate in the electoral process, such as voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives, would not be prohibited political campaign activity if conducted in a non-partisan manner.
On the other hand, voter education or registration activities with evidence of bias that (a) would favor one candidate over another; (b) oppose a candidate in some manner; or (c) have the effect of favoring a candidate or group of candidates, will constitute prohibited participation or intervention.
Despite the code, clergy members enjoy the same rights as other citizens, Smidt said.
“Should they wish to do so, they are free to place yard signs in support of candidates on the lawns where they reside,” he said of pastors. “The issue is where and in what context they choose to make such expressions of support. What the amendment prohibits is clergy endorsing specific candidates or political parties from the pulpit. What is less clear is the expression of support or opposition to specific pieces of legislation from the pulpit.”

Of course, Trump's pledge at last week's National Prayer Breakfast to do away with the Johnson Amendment has pushed it into the headlines. GetReligionista Mark Kellner offered important context in an earlier post critiquing the New York Times' treatment of the story.

Kellner emphasized that ramifications of the law's potential repeal go beyond conservative evangelical pastors and groups who support Trump. For example, my colleague pointed out:

It also would have been easy to reference the years of debates about the endorsement of candidates by African-American church leaders.

Along those lines, I wanted to call attention to a helpful story by AP's Southern political correspondent that delves into the wider impact:

ATLANTA (AP) — Republican President Donald Trump's pledge to scrap limits on church political activity could have sweeping effects that extend beyond his conservative supporters to more liberal congregations, including the black evangelical church that has long been a key component of the Democratic Party's electoral machinery.
Yet many prominent black religious leaders say they like the law the way it is. And across the spectrum there are questions about whether churches could be pulled into the campaign finance vortex and effectively become "dark money" committees that play partisan politics without disclosing donors.
"This opens up a can of worms that would undermine the church's moral authority," said the Rev. Raphael Warnock, senior pastor at Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church, where civil rights icon the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once preached.
In South Carolina, the Rev. Darrell Jackson doubles as a state senator. He allows politicians to attend Bible Way Church services in Columbia, but says he doesn't even ask his parishioners to vote for him. "That's crossing a sacred line," Jackson said.

I was pleased to see the AP report make the distinction between issues and candidates:

The law does not actually prevent churches or their leaders from weighing in on issues of the day.
Republican and Democratic politicians are fixtures in pews during election season. Theologically conservative evangelicals often emphasize opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage and their unyielding support for Israel — all Republican hallmarks. More liberal evangelicals often tout "social justice," advocating policies that reflect the Democratic Party. Voices of the Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant churches can be found in both camps.
Warnock said faith and politics necessarily mix.
"You can't advocate for the poor," he said, "without being political." But he said there's a difference between pushing policy and backing candidates.

Hmmmmm. I think I've heard that argument before.

Kudos to AP for delving a little deeper into the issue than some news reports I've seen.

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