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​Blurring a line

Nearly a week ago, at the National Prayer Breakfast, President Trump, in his characteristic speaking style, promised to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment, a perplexing declaration considering the existence of little-to-no mainstream political debate on the amendment. This Lyndon B. Johnson-era law limits the capacity of Section 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations from donating to political campaigns. While a variety of organizations fall under the purview of this law–from science and literacy nonprofits to charitable and educational groups–most notable are the religious organizations the law restricts. Because of the Johnson Amendment, religious officials are prohibited from directly collecting contributions for politicians although they can still participate in politics in other ways like holding voter registration drives or publishing pamphlets detailing candidates. Vitalizing a national discussion about this amendment in this current political climate serves more as a symbolic attack on both the separation of church and state and the criticism of involving money in politics.

Regulations on monetary contributions to political campaigns have been in flux over the last decade. However, while the Citizen’s United Supreme Court ruling stirred a lot of controversy around large monetary contributions in politics, the Johnson Amendment has not caused as much uproar over the years. Until now, there has been little record of debate surrounding the amendment, including when it was originally proposed. Even President Reagan reauthorized the law during his administration. The dearth of controversy could be due in part to the lack of enforcement by the IRS. In fact, statistically, it is incredibly unlikely for noncompliant nonprofit religious organizations to face any investigation by the IRS. The Alliance Defending Freedom, an organization that strives to strengthen legal protection for the free expression of religion, reports only one of 2,000 clergy that have violated the law in the past nine years has been audited and none have faced any repercussions or had their tax status revoked.

Given insufficient reason for vocal opposition to the amendment, it seems that the promise for revocation simply initiates a symbolic removal of a barrier between religion and government. President Trump even specifically emphasizes the supposed threat this amendment has posed to the free speech of religious organizations. In the past decade, the U.S. population has experienced a gradual shift towards greater secularism, so handing churches and other religious organizations more political power counteracts a widening of the gap between government and politics. Religious interference is politics has deep roots, and issues concerning blurring the line between church and state are multifaceted and complex. The sudden emergence of the Johnson amendment into national headlines signals a shift toward a more vague distinction between these two pillars of our society.

Ultimately, when churches and other nonprofit organizations claim tax-exempt statuses, they are granted their requests because they inherently serve the community in other ways. Organizations that do not contribute to the welfare of a society through taxation are assumed to be doing so through organizing fundraisers, providing education and creating shelters for the homeless. As a result, individuals can claim tax deductions for monetarily supporting these organizations. However, repealing the Johnson amendment would allow uncontrolled and untaxed money to flow into politics via these nonprofit organizations. While in the present we still have religious interference in politics, in the future, we would see those two entities grow even closer. Before the amendment is modified, we must stay informed and push to maintain the separation of religion and government.

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