The move to repeal the Johnson Amendment is a solution for a problem that does not exist. While recent discussions at the federal level about repealing the Johnson Amendment, including H.R. 172 introduced by Congressman Walter Jones (R-NC), intend to increase the abilities of churches, foundations, and other charities to engage in the political process, such a change in federal law places their abilities to achieve their broader public serving missions at risk.
The Johnson Amendment, a piece of federal legislation named after then Senator Lyndon B. Johnson passed in 1954, prevents churches and other charities (also known as 501(c)(3) nonprofits) from engaging in electoral politics and supporting candidates for public office. It helped establish a rationale that, in return for not engaging in partisan politics, charities would continue to receive tax-deductible donations because they focus on contributing to the broader public good rather than narrower partisan interests. Removing this barrier to engage in partisan politics puts at risk a basic justification for churches and other charities to receive tax-deductible donations. Rather than strengthening their voices in the policy process, this may actually reduce charities’ abilities to achieve their missions.
Repealing the Johnson Amendment puts the relatively high level of trust we still have in nonprofits at risk. In this age of greatly decreased trust in government and business, the nonprofit sector is one of the last institutions we the people have faith in. Trust is fundamental to any relationship, especially so between charities and their donors and volunteers. Allowing charities to engage in electoral politics will harm their ability to earn and keep this trust. Charities need to be able to hold government accountable, which means they need to educate, advocate, and lobby. If they become identified with particular Republicans or Democrats rather than known for their missions, they become part of the partisan problem and are inherently less trustworthy and less able to hold governments accountable.
Charitable nonprofit organizations play many important roles in society. They are the places we come together with our neighbors to learn about each other and our communities. They are our houses of worship, they provide vital services to those in need, and they are vehicles for citizens to join voices to educate the public, and to advocate and lobby to shape public policies in support of their missions. While charities themselves may be prohibited from engaging in electoral politics, as private citizens, people who work and volunteer for charities are free to engage in electoral politics. If they want to join with others and collectively raise their voices in support a particular candidate, they can even create other types of nonprofit organizations, such as 501(c)(4) nonprofits, that are legally allowed to engage in electoral politics and support candidates for public office.
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One of the important differences between charities and 501(c)(4) nonprofits is that donations made to charities are tax-deductible, those made to 501(c)(4)s are not. Repealing the Johnson Amendment would allow individuals to make tax-deductible donations to charities in pursuit of their partisan interests. This has the potential to divert money from mission focused public-benefiting activities to partisan efforts. Giving individuals a tax break to pursue their partisan agendas will further weaken the trust we have in charities.
More worrisome, though, removing this difference between charities and other types of nonprofits threatens the fundamental rationale for charities to receive tax-deductible donations. If charities lose the ability to receive tax-deductible donations, an extremely likely consequence of repealing the Johnson Amendment, the reduced incentives to donate will serve to limit charities’ abilities to meet their missions. Repealing the Johnson Amendment threatens not only our trust in charities but also our incentives to donate to them.
Charities must play a role in the public policy process. A diverse and healthy charitable sector must represent our multiple interests in this process. They must work to hold our governments accountable for their actions. Somewhat counter-intuitively, to play that role they must not become engaged in electoral politics; otherwise, they risk becoming tools and instruments of hyper-partisanship rather than the places we come together to civilly discuss our differences. The Johnson Amendment creates a productive barrier between charities and politicians. It establishes a bright line between charities that must serve the common good and other types of nonprofits that can engage in partisan politics. It is an important tool in helping charities to earn and keep the public trust, to retain their ability to receive tax-deductible donations, so that they can maintain their focus on achieving their missions.
Richard M. Clerkin, PhD, is executive director of the Institute for Nonprofits at N.C. State University and an associate professor in the university’s School of Public an International Affairs.