Repeal of the Johnson Amendment, if included in the final tax legislation, may prove to be its single most consequential provision. This repeal, which its proponents formerly referred to as the “Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act,” has been one of the top priorities of the theocratic right for almost two decades.
My 2013 dystopian political novel Christian Nation posited that only a few key pieces of Federal legislation would be necessary to move the country toward the theocracy so ardently desired by at least a quarter of our fellow citizens. Here is what I wrote in that story:
“Worst was the ‘Houses of Worship Freedom of Speech Restoration Act,’ which drove a stake through the principle that partisan political activity was not to be subsidized with a Federal tax deduction, but did so in a way that gave the benefit of the deduction to a single party. The evangelical and Pentecostal churches of America were, of course, overwhelmingly Republican, and the largest single part of the charitable sector. Although the Christian right had long been politically active, pastors were not allowed to endorse specific candidates or invest their charitable revenues in political advertising. Although there were many egregious violations of these rules, most clergymen obeyed because loss of the Federal tax deduction would have been devastating to the tithing and other contributions on which the movement relied. This would now change, with the $100 billion given to religious causes each year (about one-third of all annual charitable giving in America) suddenly available to support partisan politics. And ‘speech’ included paid advertising.”
Repeal of the Johnson Amendment is all about money and not at all about free speech. In a presidential election year total campaign (federal and state) spending is estimated to exceed $5 billion. And now, another hundred billion potentially entering the game, overwhelmingly available to one side only.
Consider who supports repeal. If it really does benefit non-profits generally by removing limits on free speech, then you would expect them to support it. They don’t. Charities and foundations overwhelmingly oppose it. The non-partisan National Council of Nonprofits explained, we “have worked for years, decades and centuries to build the public’s trust, and we don’t want to be dragged down by toxic partisanship.” The repeal’s sole proponents are politically active evangelicals. Doesn’t this alone tell you what you need to know?
In Christian Nation, the fictional memoirist, looking back from the theocratic future, speculates about the pivotal 2016 election, when a fictional demagogic theocratic populist defeated Hillary Clinton:
“[T]he ‘Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act’ [repeal of the Johnson Amendment] had changed fundamentally the dynamics of American politics. The churches became the top sources – over PACs, corporations and individuals – of political advertising. Partisan endorsements from evangelical pulpits virtually guaranteed the votes of those congregations; there was little that any candidate could do to change the mind of a voter whose trusted pastor had informed him or her that one of the candidates was backed by God.”
There was a time when U.S. Senators dreamed that a moment of courageous principled integrity would earn them a place in history, like the eight senators who were the subjects of Kennedy and Sorensen’s Profiles in Courage. That moment is here. Fifty-one of you have the chance to change the course of American history and join the pantheon.