Repeal the Johnson Amendment

By Joseph Farah

The American War of Independence has been characterized as one inspired in the pulpits of the colonies.

“No king but King Jesus,” was one of the slogans of those who fought the British soldiers, leading to the creation of a new independent state and the greatest explosion of freedom the world has ever known.

Because our founders believed churches were essential to maintaining the kind of Christian culture necessary for a free society in America, houses of worship were free of taxation and regulation by government.

Pastors, priests and rabbis were free to say what they wanted to say about politics and the issues of the day through the early history of our nation – in fact, right up until 1954.

That year, Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson, D-Texas, was facing opposition in his re-election bid from Christians and anti-communists, some of whom were speaking their minds freely from the pulpits.

Johnson, a powerful figure in the Senate who would later become John F. Kennedy’s vice president and succeed him following the assassination in 1963, had a solution for his own political predicament – to muzzle churches and clergy with federal regulations.

Through what became known as “the Johnson Amendment,” the U.S. Congress changed the Internal Revenue Service code, prohibiting non-profits, including churches, from endorsing or opposing political candidates.

It should have been seen as a clear infringement of the First Amendment back in 1954, but it wasn’t. And this most regrettable action has haunted America ever since.

Recently, Wiley Drake, pastor of the First Southern Baptist Church of Buena Park, Calif., was notified by the IRS he is under investigation for endorsing Mike Huckabee’s candidacy for president. His crime? Using church letterhead and a church radio show for speaking his mind.

Now his church is threatened with losing its tax-exempt status as a result.

Whether you agree with Wiley Drake or not, he and his church have every right to take a position on who should be our next president without risking the church’s tax status. Under the First Amendment, Congress has no power to tax churches. Period. End of story. Under the First Amendment, Congress has no power to stifle freedom of speech.

Ever since 1954, the government has unevenly applied its illegitimate oversight of churches – winking as some pastors turn their churches over to political candidates to make stump speeches, while warning others it is inappropriate.

There is only one real solution – repeal the Johnson Amendment.

Just as we learned that repealing the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 resulted in an explosion of lively political debate in the broadcast industry, so will the repeal of the Johnson Amendment result in an explosion of political debate in the pulpits.

And what’s wrong with that?

Why should pastors be muzzled? Don’t they have an obligation to speak out on the great moral and political issues of the day, just as they did when they inspired the War of Independence? Don’t members of the clergy deserve at least the same freedom of speech as other individuals in our society? Shouldn’t churches be encouraged to be the salt and light in our society just as they were during the first 180 years of our nation’s history?

Over the last 50 years, America’s churches have been controlled and intimidated by these hideous IRS regulations. They’ve been neutered. I blame the clergy for so timidly falling in line with the illegitimate government restrictions as much as I blame the government.

But it’s time to recognize the Johnson Amendment was an abuse of the system by a powerful politician who had no respect for the Constitution, for religious freedom and for freedom of speech. Johnson himself, as president, used the illegitimate Fairness Doctrine to target broadcasters who criticized him.

He was a petty tyrant, and we need not live under the dark cloud of suppression he created back in 1954.

Let Barack Obama speak in the churches. Let Hillary Clinton speak in the churches. Let John McCain speak in the churches. Let Mike Huckabee speak in the churches. Free pastors to say what they want, when they want.

It’s no threat to freedom. It is an example of freedom.


Related special offers:

“A Nation Adrift”

“America’s Christian Heritage”

“America’s Christian History”