The “Johnson Amendment” was introduced by Lyndon Johnson, who championed the restriction in 1954 in response to opposition to his US senate re-election campaign. A conservative nonprofit group had campaigned for his primary opponent, millionaire rancher-oilman Dudley Dougherty.
In response, Johnson as Senate Democratic minority leader, introduced an amendment to the federal tax code dealing with tax-exempt charitable organizations, including groups organized and operated exclusively for religious, charitable, scientific and educational purposes. The objective was to restrict the involvement in partisan politics of organizations that wanted tax exempt status.
The law says: “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.”
In other word, prior to this non-profit group raising the ire of Lyndon Jonson, there had been no such restrictions on the free speech of pastors or their congregations since the days of colonial era state-churches or the anti-abolition speech codes of the a antebellum south.
Aside from the specific reason for authoring this amendment, the fact that it passed in the 1950’s without dispute raises a provocative question.
Though the church may not have been the primary target of this amendment its tax exempt status pulled it under the same restrictions. Why Christians did not protest this at a time when society was much more morally conservative than today seems perplexing?
Until one considers American society in the 1950’s.
In the 50’s some form of biblical literacy was part of American public education and national life. Opening the school day in prayer was often a public mandate. Much of the US had Sabbath day restrictions and prayers were made openly at any public event. Of course the host of social ills from abortion to militant homosexuality were unthinkable and the family throughout all parts of society was intact.
In other words there was little reason for churches to notice this change, as American culture and politics were still deeply influenced by its Judeo-Christian roots.
The exception to this was in black congregations that were agitating for civil rights. Acting in a manner more in concert with their freedom in Christ and in line with hundreds of years of church history, they continued to advocate for political candidates and causes they deemed worthy of their support.
Ever since its enactment, the Johnson Amendment has been more threat than reality and is presently unenforced under Trump administration guidelines.
However, we still see those in state government use it as a means of intimidation.
If in the 1950’s there was little reason for the church to run afoul of the Johnson Amendment, today using it as an excuse for self censorship should be as much an anathema as burning incense to a graven image. Our culture and our nation’s future is under assault from those who can and do use government force to bend Christians to their will. Therefore every congregations needs to humbly seek God guidance regarding their role in this battle.
Either way, this decision should be based solely upon biblical mandate and Holy Spirit guidance. not a Bill of Rights usurping mandate written in a bygone era.