One of the tangential issues to come up repeatedly during the 2016 Presidential Campaign was the fight over the 63-year-old Johnson amendment, which bans religious organizations from contributing to or endorsing political campaigns. During the campaign, Donald Trump and Dallas mega-church pastor Robert Jeffress called for killing the law during numerous public appearances.
On Wednesday, Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton lent their support for the idea with a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan. “Since the Johnson Amendment, however, churches have been kept on the sidelines of political debate,” Abbott and Paxton wrote. “The Free Speech Fairness Act will ensure that churches may once again freely participate in government.”
Abbott and Paxton proceed to take a few swipes at Lyndon B. Johnson, who they say wrote the amendment to protect his seat in the United States Senate, before claiming that the amendment strikes at the religious liberty of all Americans.
“Religious liberty is a cornerstone of our republic. From the birth of the nation until passage of the Johnson Amendment, churches and pastors played a vital role in bringing a faith perspective to the pressing political issues of the day,” they write.
No pastor has ever seen his or her church lose its tax exempt status due to the amendment as Jeffress — who runs a church that has a sparkling, $120 million campus in the heart of downtown Dallas — readily admitted last year. Jeffress wants the amendment done away with, he said, because liberals could use its provisions to silence conservative pastors.
“I want to say this very clearly, I am for repealing the Johnson amendment not because I want to go around endorsing political candidates, I have no interest in doing that from my church,” Jeffress said, during an appearance on conservative host Mike Gallagher's radio show last fall. “The Johnson amendment and the IRS code has been abused by liberals, used by liberals to intimidate pastors.”
Jeffress endorsed Trump, although not from the pulpit, repeatedly during the election, also leading the crowd in prayer at each of the candidate’s three public stops in North Texas.
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Abbott and Paxton’s letter comes one day after a group of 99 religious organizations — including the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Texas, which counts many of Texas' moderate Baptist churches among its membership — signed onto a letter urging Congress to keep politics out of churches.
“Houses of worship are spaces for members of religious communities to come together, not be divided along political lines; faith ought to be a source of connection and community, not division and discord. Indeed, the vast majority of Americans do not want houses of worship to issue political endorsements,” a portion of the letter reads. “Particularly in today’s political climate, such endorsements would be highly divisive and would have a detrimental impact on civil discourse.”
Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, which helped draft the letter, said earlier this week that churches shouldn’t play politics with their parishioners, or their parishioner’s cash, as would be allowed if congress passes H.R. 781 and S. 264.
“Most pastors know that endorsing candidates would divide their diverse congregations, distract from their core purpose and dilute their message,” Tyler said. “All clergy can – and do – speak out on the great moral issues of the day, but encouraging houses of worship to intervene in campaigns with tax-deductible offerings would fundamentally change them. Churches are not political action committees, nor should they be.”