Mike Pence Does Not Like the Johnson Amendment. Why?

Mike Pence Caricature by DonkeyHotey (Creative Commons By SA)
Mike Pence Caricature by DonkeyHotey (Creative Commons By SA)

Mike Pence, in a video he has widely disseminated among the evangelical Christian community, speaks of himself as “…a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order.”

The fact that he does not bother to mention “American” is telling. Perhaps he overlooked it, or perhaps it is simply not important in his vision of himself: Identifying as a Christian comes first and foremost.

There are many disturbing elements in his video, which I recommend you watch for yourself. But if I had to select one element that disturbs me more than all the others, it is his promise to “…work with renewed Republican majorities in the house and in the Senate to repeal the Johnson Amendment once and for all.”

What, you may ask, is the Johnson Amendment, and why should its repeal be a matter of concern?

The Johnson Amendment was a 1954 tweak to the IRS rules concerning Section 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations, a category under which most religious organizations fall. The Johnson in question is Lyndon Johnson, that same Johnson who would later become Vice-President and then President of the United States. The objective of the Amendment is to prevent electioneering from the pulpit.

As archived from the IRS.gov website:

The Restriction of Political Campaign Intervention by Section 501(c)(3) Tax-Exempt Organizations

“Under the Internal Revenue Code, all section 501(c)(3) organizations 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. Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity. Violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.

“Certain activities or expenditures may not be prohibited depending on the facts and circumstances. For example, certain voter education activities (including presenting public forums and publishing voter education guides) conducted in a non-partisan manner do not constitute prohibited political campaign activity. In addition, other activities intended to encourage people to participate in the electoral process, such as voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives, would not be prohibited political campaign activity if conducted in a non-partisan manner.

“On the other hand, voter education or registration activities with evidence of bias that (a) would favor one candidate over another; (b) oppose a candidate in some manner; or (c) have the effect of favoring a candidate or group of candidates, will constitute prohibited participation or intervention.”

Some people will look at this Amendment and ask a perfectly reasonable-sounding question: “Doesn’t the restriction on political activity in tax-exempt1 organizations violate the First Amendment’s free speech protections?”

I would say that it does not.

First, the restrictions are actually quite narrow. The Amendment prohibits participation or intervention in political campaigns for elective public office. It does not prohibit general political speech, only that which consists of the endorsement or counter-endorsement of specific political candidates. The point is simply (and critically) to make transparent the sources of an elective candidate’s funding: if you drop a bill in the collection plate, are you supporting your religious institution, or are you effectively contributing to Joe Blow’s campaign for dogcatcher?

Second, the very existence of Section 501(c)(3) means that religious organizations are favored: They are not subject to the same degree of taxation to which other, non-exempt organizations are. There is a very strong argument that says if you wish to use your religious institution as a political instrument, then it should be subject to the same taxation and regulation that apply to other political organizations. That would include including individual campaign donation limits, reporting, and the like.

Mr. Pence’s motivations are crystal clear here. He wants churches – particularly the conservative evangelical churches that constitute the largest single component of the American religious landscape2 – to have greater influence in American politics. Removing the Johnson amendment and allowing religious organizations to throw their considerable weight directly in support or against specific political candidates poses a direct threat to the Establishment Clause of our Constitution’s First Amendment.

I write as a member of a religious minority group, one that represents a tiny fraction of the American population. I’ve seen the thousand gratuitous insults that can be directed at a religious minority, holding important exams in public schools on religious holidays being one small example. And I know that the atmosphere of tolerance that exists one day can be turned overnight into graffiti-spraying, vandalizing, murderous hate. And yet that’s not my immediate concern.

What concerns me is pretty simple. Our Founding Fathers knew exactly what they were doing when they said, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” Exercising your religion does not (and should not) mean imposing it on others who do not share it, no matter how lofty your motivation. What Mike Pence seems to forget – or does not care about – is that if you put your religion into your government, inevitably your government will get into your religion. Friends, you can take that to the bank.


Steve Krodman spent his formative years in Massapequa, New York, a town that was also the home of Jerry Seinfeld, the Baldwin brothers, Carmine Gambino, and Joey Buttafuoco. He studied chemical engineering at Princeton University, receiving his BSE degree in 1974. Retired after toiling thirty-four years in the Great Corporate Salt Mine, he lives in the steaming suburbs of Atlanta with his wife and cats. Politically, he considers himself an old-school centrist… an endangered species in these days of highly polarized political discourse.

  1. i.e., section 501(c)(3)  

  2. Pew Research Center survey on America’s Changing Religious Landscape 

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