Walking Around Money

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Walking Around Money

Speaking to a group of hundreds of conservative Christian faith leaders who met with him last June, Trump made his opposition to the Johnson Amendment a key point of his well-received speech: “I think maybe that will be my greatest contribution to Christianity — and other religions — is to allow you, when you talk religious liberty, to go and speak openly, and if you like somebody or want somebody to represent you, you should have the right to do it,” he said. “You don’t have any religious freedom, if you think about it.”

By now, most of you know a little about the history of the Johnson Amendment. It was proposed by Senator Lyndon Johnson in 1954 to counter the efforts of a conservative nonprofit group in Texas to defeat his reelection. With no discussion or debate (and passed within seconds of introduction), the Amendment began with little forethought or clear guidelines and remains vague even today.

Enforcement of the Amendment has also been virtually non-existent. Only one of the more than 2,000 Christian clergy in the United States who has deliberately challenged the law since 2008 has been audited — and none punished.

No doubt it has been violated. In fact, a 2016 study by Pew Research found that 28 percent of black Protestants heard their clergy speak in support of Hillary Clinton during the recent campaign, and 20 percent said they heard their ministers speak against Donald Trump. By comparison, just four percent of white evangelicals reported having heard their pastors speak in favor of a presidential candidate, while only seven percent heard their pastors speak against a candidate (mostly Clinton).

For years, political candidates have used “walking around money” to influence pastors in contested districts to either directly endorse them or give them the pulpit prior to an election. It’s not quite an underground economy for churches, but it is something of a tradition. I don’t think Lyndon Johnson had these churches in mind when he proposed his amendment. In fact, I’m quite sure he didn’t. It was an expedient move for a particular situation. Classic Lyndon Johnson.

Now that President Trump has promised to destroy that Amendment, we should consider the consequences. While churches represent only 25 percent of the 1.5 million nonprofits in the country, it is likely the President’s intended audience is churches — especially those who are evangelical and conservative.

Some have said this will open the floodgates of  “dark money” for political contributions to churches that will now be fully tax-deductible, and because churches are not required to disclose the names of their donors, those contributions will be hidden. Others are concerned that pastors will be even more susceptible to “street money” and the prices could rise in an open market for backing from the pulpit. The value of high-profile endorsements could be significant, especially in national contests with billions of dollars at play. What is an endorsement from Franklin Graham or Tim Keller worth?

Russell Moore, while being in favor of lifting the ban, has cautioned that “the church ought to stand prophetically distant from political horsetrading.” Even Cal Thomas has raised the concern that the message of the churches should be focused on the eternal and not partisan politics.

While I don’t think enough thought has been given to the effect of allowing hundreds of thousands of nonprofits to openly support or oppose candidates and retain their tax status, I also have questions about the net effect of allowing evangelical churches to preach on issues (now permitted) but to also endorse or oppose candidates by name. Ironically, I’m not sure it will make much difference to the outcomes of the elections — for several reasons.

First, pastors generally reflect the existing values and political leanings of their congregation rather than influencing them. Very few evangelical congregations reflect wide political diversity, and an endorsement of a candidate would likely be little more than an echo of what is already the choice of most in the congregations.

Second, in a 2014 study by George Barna, it was clear that while 90 percent of the pastors who were polled said they believed the Bible spoke to the social issues of the day, only 10 percent of them said they were speaking from the pulpit on those issues. What is it that holds them back from speaking from the pulpit? They did not want to jeopardize attendance, giving, number of programs, number of staff, and facilities. “Controversy keeps people from being in the seats, controversy keeps people from giving money and attending programs.”

Third, 80 percent of Americans polled by Lifeway Research said it was inappropriate for pastors to endorse a candidate in church. For the most part, people in evangelical congregations do not want their pastors to endorse or oppose candidates. I suspect they would also feel the same as the pastors about their preaching on social issues. “That’s not why we come to church.”

All this could change, of course. Expanding the power of the pulpit might well skew elections and tempt some, but I would not bet on it. There are far less expensive and more efficient ways to distract and co-opt the church.

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