Coffin, 2-10-2017

Guest Column: Preserve the distance between nonprofits (religion) and politics

Although some might disagree concerning this crucial right’s divine origin, most Americans would applaud our nation’s track record of defending the right of all to worship or not worship as they see fit.

But some of the president’s views on religious liberty have left even many believers uncomfortable. He declared in his next sentence at the prayer breakfast: “That is why I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution.”

Granted the president’s stridency, many may be surprised to discover that the Johnson Amendment isn’t about our right to worship (or not worship) as we choose. Nor is it about freedom of religious speech. Rather, it’s about the criteria any nonprofit must satisfy to qualify for a significant government “subsidy.”      

It works like this: Throughout its history, our government has sought to encourage certain practices by offering subsidies to individuals and organizations. The subsidy may come in the form of monetary handouts, but more often it involves reduction or elimination of taxes.

In general, nonprofits offer many services that the government wants to encourage — services that benefit the community and lighten the government’s workload. Thus the first national income-tax law, passed in 1913, granted tax exemption to “any corporation or association organized and operated exclusively for religious, charitable, scientific, or educational purposes…”

The Johnson Amendment, introduced by then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson and passed in 1954, simply clarifies and codifies what the government is and isn’t willing to subsidize. In essence, the government says: We’re delighted to subsidize the prime purpose for which we granted you nonprofit status. We think your contribution to the community justifies our willingness to waive taxes that would otherwise be coming to us. But we aren’t prepared to grant tax exemptions for political advocacy.

Remember, the Johnson Amendment applies equally to all nonprofits. Religion isn’t singled out for greater restrictions. Moreover, any group can address any issues that concern it. But what it can’t do if it wants to retain its tax-exempt status is officially endorse candidates and/or political parties.

Although the “restriction” applies to all nonprofits, some religious leaders are claiming religious persecution, infringement on freedom of worship and the muzzling of free speech. Thus lawmakers are now considering legislation that would allow all 501(c)(3) organizations (nonprofits) to endorse political candidates — as long as any associated spending is “minimal.”

But our lawmakers may be overlooking the “law” of unintended consequences. While some religious leaders may chafe at not being able to endorse candidates or political parties, I predict that being able to do so would have a major negative impact on the faith community in general.

I suggest the Johnson Amendment — to the degree it has been honored — has helped preserve the spiritual credibility of faith communities and their leaders by not allowing them to openly and officially put their stamp of approval on any candidate or political party. Thus, they don’t have to routinely come up with lame excuses and hokey explanations about why it’s OK to campaign for a candidate whose behavior is diametrically opposed to the standards advocated every week within their faith community.

Especially the young — who seem to come with inbuilt hypocrisy meters — find it impossible to understand how the behaviors that are declared spiritual and moral anathema for them become inconsequential when enthusiastically engaged in by candidates and political parties.

R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, asked concerning our recent election: “Is it worth destroying our moral credibility to support someone who is beneath the baseline level of human decency for anyone who should deserve our vote?”

That question will become even more crucial should repeal of the Johnson Amendment give religion unfettered-but-still-subsidized involvement in the political process.

My real fear for the faith community is aptly stated in the well-known adage, “Be careful what you wish for — because you just might get it.”

James Coffin is executive director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.