Views on the News: Johnson Amendment
In his speech at the National Prayer address earlier this week, President Donald Trump claimed, “I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment,” according to a Feb 2. Washington Post article. The Johnson Amendment is a section of the tax code that prevents houses of worship from using their social influence to campaign for elected officials. With Trump’s current popularity among Christian conservatives, this decision comes as no surprise. What do you think of the Johnson Amendment and should religious institutions be allowed to influence elections?
Alex Mitchell ’17
While I dislike many of President Trump’s legal efforts, I support his efforts to protect the free speech of religious leaders. The Johnson Amendment has been a troubling and unconstitutional curtailing of free speech, given the historical role of religion in American society. From Abolition to Prohibition to Civil Rights, many transformative American social movements were born at the pulpit. Houses of worship have also historically mobilized and registered voters, particularly immigrants. Many religious groups remain politically active, but repealing the Johnson Amendment will encourage more to take a stand. In a time when religious and ethnic minority communities feel increasing pressure from our government, we need to affirm the freedom of the pulpit as a weapon of political resistance and social change. Repealing this law will empower religious communities of all faiths to take a more active role in political organization and resistance.
Alex Mitchell ’17 is a member of the Catholic Student Organization and the interfaith group. He also writes for the Brandeis Hoot.
Gabi Hersch ’17
Are President Trump’s efforts to ‘destroy’ the Johnson Amendment a fight for free speech or a means to support candidates with tax-deductible contributions? In other words, should 501(c)(3) organizations (churches, charities, universities, etc.) be able to endorse a political candidate? Thinking about sermons I have heard from rabbis, and nonprofit efforts toward petitions and protests, initially, I wondered: What would this repeal change aside from NGOs now directly voicing support for a candidate? After closer investigation, I realized this repeal would effectively allow for the tax-deductible funding of candidates. This would corrupt the missions of our houses of worship and charities; it would enable politicians and political agendas to influence the flow of funds to public charities and religious organizations. Today, religious leaders are free to preach on social and political issues, and “Nonpartisan voter education activities and church-organized voter registration drives are legal.” Why should we change the nonprofit sector from our space that unites us to a divisive and corrupt one, where politicians may use money as vehicles for power? The answer is simple: we shouldn’t.
Gabi Hersch ’17 is a Religious Studies Undergraduate Departmental Representative. She is also a Brandeis Bridges fellow and a member of the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program.
Annie Lieber ’18
The Johnson Amendment is a reflection of an important idea of American democracy — that religions should not have influence on or mix with the state or government. However, it is foolish to think that the influence of churches (and indeed other religious organizations) on how people think and vote does not exist. While I believe that organizations with tax exempt status should not be able to endorse or oppose political candidates, and indeed should legally be prevented from doing so, it is not a question of them influencing elections; it is a question of officially allowing it in a legal capacity. The Johnson Amendment should remain in effect, but we cannot ignore the effects churches and other 501c(3)s can have on how people affiliated with them view social and political issues, whether or not they are allowed to legally endorse political candidates.
Annie Lieber ’18 is a Tzedek/Social Justice Coordinator for Hillel and a writer for the Odyssey.
Lilly Hecht ’18
Though he hasn’t the Constitutional power to do so, Trump wants to further break down the boundaries between church and state by “destroying” the Johnson Amendment. However, he conveniently neglects the “free speech” loophole that such a repeal would establish, allowing anonymous, dark money — for religious purposes or not — to funnel through tax-exempt religious institutions into political campaigns. We see the same issue when Congresspeople get funding from private corporations: their subsequent initiatives mysteriously benefit the sources of their bulging wallets. We can’t let religious institutions influence our political landscape similarly — not if we value democratic, equitable and truly unimpeded free speech. The more we allow political campaigns to receive anonymous donations, the more the elite minority special interest groups will benefit at the expense of the majority and the marginalized. Ultimately, this initiative is further proof that Trump seeks to empower the rich and powerful at the expense of average American citizens.
Lilly Hecht ’18 is a Legal Studies UDR and an associate justice on the Student Union Judiciary.
Frankie Marchan ’19
As part of the first amendment, freedom of religion is a prominent part of our world and American society. Separation of church and state is a significant result of this freedom to practice (or not practice) any religion. The Johnson amendment restrains the political activity of non-profit organizations, which makes sense, since it might be more efficient to focus their limited funds and resources on using or innovating current systems to improve the lives of many or of the group they serve. In my experience with a Catholic upbringing, the religious environment lays out moral codes and guidelines without making decisions for the members of that religion. I imagine other religions with their own (usually similar but nuanced) moral code could do something similar: presenting ideas while allowing individuals to reach their own conclusions and decisions. Political speech can be divisive, and it doesn’t belong in religious institutions.
Frankie Marchan ’19 is a member of the Catholic Student Organization.