A Rabbi Defends the Johnson Amendment

The many reasons why President Trump should not end the law preventing tax-exempt organizations, including religious entities, from supporting political candidates.

Carlos Barria / Reuters

All religion involves some politics. As the partisanship heats up even classical religious bromides take on an undiplomatic edge. A biblical reference to ‘welcoming the stranger’ in the current climate, seems to favor one political position over another. ‘Righteousness exalts a nation’ sounds like it belong on a banner at a rally. Yet despite this natural encroachment American law has drawn some lines. The Johnson amendment, named for then Senator Lyndon Johnson, prohibits tax-exempt organizations from supporting political candidates. As a Rabbi, I pray – quite literally – that it is not repealed.

I lead a politically diverse (not to say ‘divided’) synagogue.  In the United States in our age, politics is far more potent in separating people than religion.  There are many kinds of religious positions one can stake out in my synagogue, and while some may not agree with them, they do not threaten the fabric of the community.  But a political declaration from the Rabbi will have a percentage of the congregants heading for the door.

When I delivered an invocation at the Democratic convention, some members of my congregation were livid, insisting that such an ‘endorsement’ was flat out wrong.  When I maintained that it was a blessing and not an endorsement, I was invited to ‘prove’ it by delivering an invocation at a Jewish Republican dinner. I did so willingly–although this time members on the other side of the congregational aisle were vocal about their displeasure.

The only guest speakers that have ever occasioned protest and walkouts have been those who represented a political view or suddenly pronounced one. We have had people speak about the Muslim and Christian faith with no incident. But recently at an interfaith service in my synagogue, an invited Pastor made an offensive statement about the politics of the Middle East.  From that moment on there was a strained and uncomfortable quality to the entire evening. Instead of unity, there was division–a legacy of our political climate.

What is true inside an organization is true between organizations. I have done my share of interfaith work. When there are breakdowns it is rarely because adherents of one religion refuse to countenance the theology of the other. We can usually listen to different conceptions of God and worship with equanimity. Yet when someone stakes out a political position, people no longer feel they are part of the same spiritual enterprise. In our age the battle is less over the bible than the ballot.

Now imagine that each Rabbi and Minister is under pressure to endorse. Believe me, once endorsements are permitted they will become expected. Not only will it tear individual houses of worship apart, but it will divide those that could otherwise work together. All of them will be labeled for their political orientations, first and foremost. You may as well affix an elephant or a donkey instead of a cross on your church, because that is how it will be seen – a Republican church or a Democratic one. Preachers that do not endorse will be derided as pusillanimous and lacking conviction. Discourse in the synagogue and church, especially around election time, will be as toxic as our political discourse has become, because they will be one and the same.

People should not be able to give tax exempt contributions to religious organizations in order to support a candidate.  Preachers who care about political endorsements can always say what they want, but they forfeit the right to be a tax free entity.  More important, keeping a corner free of politics is like keeping worship services free of cellphones: it carves a space from the din of everyday life that permits the spirit to enter.

Although most support retaining the amendment, opponents argue that the act has been violated without consequence, and the distinction about endorsing is untenable and it restricts religious liberty. There is no question that the law is not a bright line law – it requires some interpretation.  But that same argument is true for the vast majority of our laws, and the fact that some opponents have deliberately violated it to provoke a court challenge makes a mockery of the claim that no one knows when the law is being violated.

Some religious traditions are admittedly more politically oriented than others. But within all the faith traditions there are both liberal and conservative strains. To argue there is only one way to read the bible ignores both history and your equally faithful neighbor. Moreover, the amendment does not prevent Pastors from speaking – only from doing so under the cloak of tax-exemption.

Those who object to one or another side in the debate are not obligated to subsidize a political endorsement with their tax dollars. Some of the same religious figures who object to paying taxes to fund programs they find objectionable argue that other taxpayers should subsidize political preaching they find congenial. Every preacher has spoken about specific political questions. But a religious case for a candidate is also different from making a case for an issue: No candidate is an ideal embodiment of religious ideals. Arguing the ideal is religiously pristine; to advance the person is a political act.

The law’s essential intent holds – to permit a generally neutral space where different political views can coexist in an increasingly fragmented and fractious society.  In an age when even sports have become politicized, arguing for politicization of the pulpit is short-sighted and counterproductive.