Repeal the Johnson Amendment?

US political campaigns are increasingly and ridiculously expensive. The ever-growing avalanche of special-interest money dedicated to electing or defeating a particular candidate saps the public’s trust in our democracy, and rightfully so. With money comes influence. To make matters worse, much of this spending comes from undisclosed sources, so-called dark money.

According to the IRS, 501(c)(4) groups, such as the NRA and Planned Parenthood Action Fund, are social welfare non-profit organizations. They exist “to further the common good and general welfare of the people of the community.” While many will disagree about which organizations fit this description, the point at hand is that they enjoy perks that political organizations do not. And yet 501(c)(4)s are increasingly behaving as if they were political organizations. As long as political activity is not their primary purpose, these social welfare groups can legally engage in political activity. And unlike actual political organizations, 501(c)(4)s can keep their donors secret. They are free to collect an unlimited amount of money, use it to influence elections (and impress their favorite candidates), and never reveal where they got the funds. Masking who is bankrolling political campaigns is corrosive to our democracy. 

Sadly, many in Congress are now pushing to repeal the Johnson Amendment, a move that would welcome even more dark money into the system through another type of nonprofit: 501(c)(3)s. Examples of such organizations are churches, schools, museums, and many youth organizations such as the Girl Scouts. The Johnson Amendment designates these groups as non-political, i.e. they are to refrain from promoting one candidate over another.

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The impetus to repeal the Johnson Amendment comes largely from conservative evangelicals, who feel it infringes on religious liberty and free speech. It’s true the law does limit their ability to turn sermons into campaign speeches and tithes into political ads, but in return they’re the lucky beneficiaries of 501(c)(3) tax status. Not only are donations to these groups kept anonymous, they are also tax deductible. Just imagine the loophole that would open up if political restrictions were lifted on 501(c)(3)s. Churches could double as Super PACs — the ultimate Super PACs. Lobbyists could secretly give to churches while being blessed with a tax write-off. (On a side note, are we not already divided enough? Do we really want party-aligned churches — one more tear in our social fabric?)

President Trump, who received critical support from conservative evangelicals, has pledged to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment in the name of religious liberty and free speech. That sounds noble, but keep in mind, churches and other 501(c)(3)s are already free to discuss and take public positions on issues relevant to their interests. If they desire the freedom to go further, then their nonprofit status should change accordingly. The real issue is the disheartening trend of money dirtying our politics. A government encumbered by moneyed interests is a government that cannot effectively pursue the greater good. Inviting more dark money into the equation would be a costly move in the wrong direction.