Oppose repealing the Johnson Amendment

Nov 30, 2017 by

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Pastors in the USA have learned that church and state are separate. They have learned not to support candidates or a political party from the church or in their public ministries connected to the church. At least they are supposed to have both learned and practiced this non-support of a political candidate.

The IRS puts it this way:

Currently, the law prohibits political campaign activity by charities and churches by defining a 501(c)(3) organization as one “which does not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.” [Johnson Amendment]

The worst thing that has happened with the church since the ’60s but especially since the ’80s (under Reagan) has been the politicization and partisanization of the church.

Church cultures now exist where in a local church if you are not a Republican or a Democrat, you don’t fit. This is surrendering to Caesar what belongs to God alone.

Now there is a bill underway, attached to the tax bill, that would permit churches or pastors or church leaders to identify with a political party and announce support for a political party and encourage church folks to support a political party.

H.R.172 – To restore the Free Speech and First Amendment rights of churches and exempt organizations by repealing the 1954 Johnson Amendment.


To restore the Free Speech and First Amendment rights of churches and exempt organizations by repealing the 1954 Johnson Amendment.


Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,


(a) In General.—Paragraph (3) of section 501(c) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 (relating to list of exempt organizations) is amended by striking “, and which does not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office”.


(b) Effective Date.—The amendments made by this section shall apply to taxable years ending after the date of the enactment of this Act.


(c) Campaign Finance Laws Unaffected.—The amendments made by this section shall not invalidate or limit any provision of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 (2 U.S.C. 431 et seq.).

First, this repeal is not good for churches or pastors. To encourage pastors and preachers to take sides in politics, to align themselves with a political party, is a colossal mistake. Pastors have a calling to minister the gospel to all, not to those of their political party.

Second, this will prevent the non-aligned from attending and participating in churches even more. Again, the church is a space for grace and a gospel-shaped place, not a caucus for a political party. So many in our society today are sick and tired of the politicization of the church; this will make it worse for them.

Third, too many pastors are already aligned with political parties. May this Bill, which I hear is going through process for vote, awaken pastors and church folks to write to their congressional leaders and ask them not to support H.R. 172.

Fourth, there was profound wisdom in the Johnson Amendment quoted above.

Scot McKnight is a professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lisle, Ill., and the author of The Jesus Creed. He blogs at Jesus Creed, where this post originally appeared.

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  • Bruce Leichty

    Let’s see if I have this straight. Prof. McKnight wants the state to enforce the gospel by making sure the church continues to do the church’s business and only the church’s business. He claims that it is politicization that is driving people away from the church — even though this politicization has supposedly been barred since 1956 when the Internal Revenue Code was amended to intrude on the pulpit. That’s a strange sort of faith and a problematic diagnosis in my view. Nor is it consonant with the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of religion and speech, AND prohibits only the “establishment” of official religion. While it is reprehensible when churches align themselves with “a political party” because of the inherent differences between interest groups and ekklesia, that is a matter of Scripture and not secular law, and it is even more reprehensible when pastors have to feel themselves muzzled on the implications of the gospel for politics and nation and culture, just because political parties have a tendency to address these issues too. Mennonites — at least to the degree they get involved in the messy political world at all — should support repeal of the “Johnson Amendment.” If Mennonites have embraced adherents of both major political parties (and others) in their congregations, which historically they were often able to do, it wasn’t because of ol’ Johnson. I’m not going to deal with the separate issue of the problems with the tax bill to which the repeal bill is currently attached…. .

    • Berry Friesen

      Bruce, every liberal cell in my body (you know, that part of me that says “America” is our most important project as Christians) disagrees with you. And though the number of such cells is large, I take your point and thank you for offering it.

  • Rainer Moeller

    Shall the state restrain churchly activities for the sake of the church itself?
    One can see things that way. For example, German Catholics were very much politicized before 1933, so when the Nazi State forced Catholics to dissolve their party, their union and most of their associations, this was seen by many as a positive factor. In the same way, some Orthodox people hailed the restrictions by the Bolshevist government.
    The Founding Fathers didn’t preview our modern tax system in which the survival of associations often depends on tax laws. Would they have liked the idea that restrictions of speech are not debated openly but instead ruled via tax laws – implying that tax exemption is a kind of bribe and taxes a kind of deterrent for people to not oppose the powers to be?