Robert Meyer
Trumping the Johnson Amendment
By Robert Meyer
May 8, 2017

President Donald Trump made a bold step in the right direction at the National Day of Prayer ceremony, by issuing an executive order negating the Johnson Amendment. The Johnson Amendment, passed by congress in 1954, was a change in the IRS tax code that prevented churches and religious organizations from endorsing political candidates without jeopardizing their tax exempt status. Ironically, it had nothing to do with the First Amendment, yet you will hear militant secularists carping about how Trump's action further weakens the "Separation between church and state." How is this possible, when the legislative act in question has only influenced public perception and ecclesiastical prerogative for the past half century?

Of course, what the secularist means by this phrase is that religion has no business influencing public policy. Not only is this assertion mistaken and misguided, it is, in fact, blatantly Orwellian.

Our first two presidents, who also took part in the convention to frame the First Amendment, spoke directly to the issue of religious conviction and public policy.

"Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people, and is wholly inadequate for the government of any other." John Adams 1797

"Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: ...And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle." George Washington 1796

The assumption that the "Wall of separation between church and state" represents an prohibition against religious influence on public policy, is an obvious perversion of the metaphor's historical meaning. It should be viewed a fable of contemporary secular mythology.

The Johnson Amendment originally was little more than a self-interested attempt to deflect personal criticism. It has become a muzzle on the church itself. Pastors who don't want to cross the line, won't go anywhere near it. Consequently, the prohibition on endorsing political candidates quickly morphs into a prohibition against the commentary regarding so-called political issues. The exact opposite is the case. The late Robert Bork, in his tome Slouching toward Gomorrah laments that since the 1960's, so many ethical issues have become politicized. As a result, in our culture, taking a principled moral stand has been reclassified as bigotry.

Amazingly, we are often reminded that the words "Under God," were only added to the Pledge of Allegiance as a figment of ceremonial deism, to distinguish ourselves from the Communist Bloc at the height of the Cold War. Yet few people point out that the Johnson Amendment has distorted the perception of First Amendment prohibitions for roughly the same amount of time in America's history.

So what do I expect going forward? Many mainline Christian churches, along with other non- faith traditions, will disapprove of this measure, saying that it will lead to improper influence and adulteration of the message. But in really, they are more concerned about those with conservative and orthodox positions being on an equal footing. When have liberal churches ever been afraid of allowing partisan politicians access to the pulpit? Has the "Social Justice" movement ever been concerned that an overemphasis on public policy will overshadow the vital aspect of a personal relationship with the Lord? Has there ever been a movement outside of the faith communities of Christians imploring their clergy to tone down the rhetoric? An important lesson for people of faith is to remember the IRS scandal and the discriminatory treatment received by organizations applying for tax exempt status that were affiliated with the Tea Party movement.

Leaders for secular Christian suppression organizations will cry foul and give impassioned exhortations of why this is all terrible. The arguments will even seem convincing to some conservative Christians. They will distort the issue. I saw a bumper sticker once that declared "The last time we mixed politics and religion, people were burned at the state." They conveniently forgot about atrocities of demagogues with secular objectives during the 20th century. Despite their sales pitch, the reality is that we are returning church and state standing back to its original position which existed just fine until the 1950's. Of course, expect these same secular ideologues to go judge shopping in search of an ideological friendly court that will put a stay on this executive order. I doubt they will have much trouble succeeding. They will claim that Trump is trying to establish a theocracy.

Our big collective mistake has been repeatedly falling for the idea that while there is a jurisdictional and functional separation between church and state, there must also be a corresponding distinction between political issues and "religious" issues. Consequently, the ecclesiastical community shrinks in fear or goes in an entirely different direction when they need to address the most important cultural issues of our times.

© Robert Meyer


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Robert Meyer

Robert Meyer is a hardy soul who hails from the Cheesehead country of the upper midwest... (more)


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