Conservatives have succeeded in infusing religion into our government. It has taken four decades for this slow, creeping, strategic effort to succeed, but it has succeeded. Nowhere has this been more obvious than in our laws and policies, and nowhere is this more visible than in two highly contested cases decided by the Supreme Court. In the now infamous Citizens United case, the Supreme Court decided corporations are entitled to anonymous, monetized free speech. Four years later, the Court decided in the Hobby Lobby case that corporations have the religious freedom to ignore health care laws. This means that religious entities, unlike all other American entities, do not have to adhere to all the provisions of the Affordable Care Act.
The most recent culmination of this movement’s success occurred in May, when President Donald Trump directed the Internal Revenue Service to allow religious nonprofits to play active, partisan roles in politics while retaining their tax-exempt status, thereby nullifying the Johnson Amendment. These infusions of religion into government critically endanger minority communities and threaten the separation of church and state. As such, these Supreme Court decisions and Trump’s order must be undone.
The Johnson Amendment: What it does and its supporters
Trump’s directive to ignore the Johnson Amendment allows Christian and cultural conservatives to anonymously influence elections and public policy, especially as they seek to exclude religious minorities and immigrants from politics and society. This contravenes the explicit impetus behind the amendment.
Introduced in 1954 by Democratic Senator Lyndon Johnson, the amendment limits the political activity of tax-exempt organizations. Reflecting the historical, simultaneous concern about Communist and Christian “propaganda” in politics, Johnson’s legislation declares that 501(c)(3) organizations — which can include schools, hospitals, foundations and churches — “are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of, or in opposition to, any candidate for elective public office.” Organizations can espouse how individuals lead their lives, but they can neither advocate for or against a specific political candidate nor a specific piece of legislation upon which to base that lifestyle. Note that a Republican Congress adopted this Democratic-sponsored measure without debate, and Republican President Dwight Eisenhower signed it.
The reasoning for this decadeslong, bipartisan restriction is clear and straightforward. These organizations say they provide a public good like education, health care, welfare, religious services and the like. As long as they provide such goods, the government does not tax them and allows for other tax-deductible benefits. Also, those donating to these organizations can deduct their contributions from their own taxes. The IRS thus misses two opportunities for revenue. Moreover, unlike other 501(c)(3) organizations, places of worship and their integrated auxiliaries do not have to file a tax return with the IRS.