Keep church and state separate
Regarding “House GOP working to legalize politics in pulpit” (July 18): I don’t know what burns my grits the most: that Republicans sneer at separation of church and state, that they use stealth tactics to turn bad ideas into law or that they display their hypocrisy so openly. The argument that clergy are denied their right of free speech because they can’t endorse political candidates from the pulpit is hogwash. Clergy can endorse candidates – if their congregations play by the rules and give up their tax exemption.
Republicans’ motivation is clear. Conservative preachers influence their base. Giving churches a pass on a rule that restricts all other nonprofits serves GOP election campaigning, and at low cost. It’s a cynical ploy under the guise of protecting free speech that also undercuts separation of church and state – another conservative goal. (If this provision survives, I wonder how Republicans will react to political endorsements in mosques.) To top it off, GOP House members don’t debate the question openly. Instead they sneak their rule change into a must-pass spending bill. What was once the party that professed family values, personal responsibility and morality has become the party of guile, manipulation and secrecy.
Johnson amendment ‘keeps peace’
Regarding “House GOP working to legalize politics in pulpit” (July 18): It seems to me that most churches have managed to stay above the political fray and division that paralyzes country and society, and I believe that the Johnson Amendment of 1954 has contributed to keeping the peace within many congregations. If the churches were given free rein to support one and oppose the other political party without losing their tax-exempt status, they would turn into political action committees inviting and accepting financial support from political power players.
I don’t think this is desirable. The claim that the Johnson amendment infringes on the churches’ right to free speech and must therefore be repealed is deceptive, since the amendment has just the opposite effect. It keeps the churches separate from the state and free from state interference.
Churches have free speech
I had to laugh at quotes from Rep. John Culbertson, R-Texas: “Why should ministers ... have their freedom of thought and speech suppressed?” And Richard Land on overturning the Johnson Amendment of 1954: “... this will help thaw out the chilling effect that this has on freedom of speech for churches and religious groups ...” in “House GOP working to legalize politics in pulpit” (July 18). There has never been any suppression of a pastor, or anyone else for saying anything from the pulpit or from endorsing and supporting any candidate. The only thing the law requires is that a religious institution or church that wishes to do so give up their tax-exempt status.
As a lifelong Baptist, I have questioned any church being given tax-exempt status. Perhaps it is time to give all religions and all pastors true freedom of speech in the political arena by overturning tax-exempt status for all religious institutions, whether they be churches, synagogues, schools or universities. We can also overturn special tax status for all religious leaders. The amount of money raised just from local property taxes would greatly help support public education, affordable housing and medical care for those in need.
Free vs. subsidized speech
“House GOP working to legalize politics in pulpit” (July 18) illustrates the misunderstandings that swirl around the Johnson Amendment. Nonprofits receive the benefits of tax-exempt status in exchange for the work they do that benefits society at large. Endorsing or opposing a political candidate benefits only a subset of society. It’s important to distinguish between free speech and subsidized speech. This distinction was made clear when the Supreme Court, in 1983, unanimously upheld the Johnson Amendment. Justice Rehnquist wrote, “A legislature’s decision not to subsidize the exercise of a fundamental right does not infringe the right.”
In other words, a church still has the right to endorse a candidate, but if it wants to do that, it must give up its tax-exempt status because taxpayers should not be forced to support a church or other nonprofit’s campaigning through tax exemptions. Rep. John Culbertson, who worked to put language that guts the Johnson Amendment in the current appropriations bill, thinks that the Johnson Amendment tries “to squelch the thought or political speech” of a pastor. In fact, it prevents our tax dollars from subsidizing the endorsement of a candidate whom we do not support.
Keep politics out of church
“House GOP working to legalize politics in pulpit” (July 18) doesn’t address how Americans feel about allowing houses of worship to endorse or oppose political candidates.
Consider these recent polls. A 2017 poll by Independent Sector found that, overall, 72 percent of voters want to keep the Johnson Amendment (67 percent of Republicans, 76 percent of Democrats, 77 percent of Independents). In 2016, Lifeway (the company that owns and operates Lifeway Christian Bookstores) found that 79 percent of Americans felt that it is inappropriate for a pastor to endorse a candidate in church. The Pew Research Center, also in 2016, reported that 66 percent of Americans surveyed expressed opposition to church endorsements of candidates.
And how do church leaders feel? The National Association of Evangelicals reported in February, 2017, that nearly 90 percent of evangelical leaders do not think pastors should endorse politicians from the pulpit. Clearly, Americans do not want to see their houses of worship turned into partisan battlegrounds. Repealing the Johnson Amendment would clear the way for this undesirable scenario.