Setting the record straight on the “Johnson Amendment” and Trump’s demagoguery

Donald Trump Johnson Amendment

Donald Trump wants to be the “savior” of the Christian church in America. He has said as much numerous times with his promise to repeal the “Johnson Amendment.”

Aside from failing on its face, this statement by Trump is also highly inaccurate. Let’s look at the facts.

First of all, many Christians, pastors, and churches today abhor “the Johnson Amendment,” believing it is an infringement of 1st Amendment rights. The argument goes something like this: “Why should the government dictate what can and can’t be said in churches?”

That is absolutely correct. No government on earth has the authority to censor God’s Word. That would be a clear violation of the left’s cherished phrase – “separation of church and state.”

The problem comes when churches seek to speak out about what is happening in society; specifically in government. What, if any, limitations should churches be subject to obeying? In this area, the left has distorted the facts considerably. They would have the church believe it can’t speak out about any social issue; at least not take a position that isn’t “politically correct.”

This is absolute nonsense! All churches have the right to speak about any subject in society they wish, especially in areas that touch upon faith and morality. In other words, pastors and churches are absolutely free to condemn Planned Parenthood for aborting children and selling their body parts to the highest bidders.

Churches were free to urge Congress to impeach Bill Clinton when he committed perjury and obstruction of justice. Churches are free today to condemn the 2015 Supreme Court decision Obergefell, which has idiotically redefined marriage in America.

The real problem comes when churches engage in direct political activity; for example, if a church were to pay its employees to work on a particular candidate’s campaign. Also, if a church were to take up offerings and give them to a particular political party. These are reasonable restrictions and most Christians have no problem with them being enforced. But, the problem is when the government threatens to overstep its bounds and stifle speech that is the intersection of faith and real-life issues. That is a blatant abuse of the “Johnson Amendment.”

On the other hand, it seems some churches are free to engage in whatever political activity they wish with immunity. Many urban black churches regularly shill for their favorite Democrat candidates. So, in the sense of reality, the Johnson Amendment is bad because it is either being overly enforced, or ignored by the government. That may be reason enough to have it be repealed.

But, we must look at the issue in its totality. First of all, what is the history and intent of the Johnson Amendment?

Then Democrat Texas Senator, Lyndon B. Johnson, pushed the amendment in his re-election bid in 1954. He saw that his opponent was using a charitable organization (not a church) to raise money against him. Since the organization was tax exempt, Johnson saw this as an unfair advantage.

In the Senate, Johnson was able to push through his amendment – added to another bill – to prohibit all 501(c)(3) organizations (charitable, non-profit, tax exempt organizations) from engaging in partisan political advocacy. The rule was broad-based, but since most churches are incorporated as 501(c)(3)s, it included them. Johnson himself wasn’t specifically targeting churches, but some of his fellow southern Democrats supported the amendment because they wanted to stifle the speech of the southern civil rights preachers.

Now, what the amendment specifically said was that any 501(c)(3) organization, if it wished to keep its tax exempt status, was prohibited from advocating for any particular political candidate, or opposing one. It also meant charitable organizations couldn’t raise money specifically for candidates or political parties.

What this was supposed to mean is that First Community Church on Main Street couldn’t take out a full page ad in the paper saying, “Vote for Joe Smith for President.” It also meant the local Lions Club couldn’t have a fundraising event for “Bob Jones for Governor.”

On its face, the Amendment said nothing about pastors speaking out about their personal preferences for various political candidates. All pastors and other church employees are absolutely free to express their political preferences as per the 1st Amendment’s Freedom of Speech clause. But, what a pastor may not do is publicly state, “First Community Church endorses Joe Smith for President”; and the church board may not call for a special offering to be taken to “help defeat Bob Jones from being Governor.”

These restrictions seem reasonable and logical. Most churches and pastors would agree that the church shouldn’t descend in politics in this fashion. But, many on the left want to push the Amendment’s meaning much further. They want every church to lose its tax exempt status if that church speaks out about things they disagree with. This is wrong and would fail if challenged in court.

Churches may exercise quite a wide latitude of non-partisan political activities. They may hold candidate forums where all candidates are invited. They may also invite particular candidates to speak to the congregation (as long as a similar invitation is sent to the opponent; whether they come or not is irrelevant). They may hold voter registration drives as long as people aren’t told which political party they must register with. They may distribute non-partisan voters’ guides revealing candidates’ positions on issues. They may inform members of pending legislation coming before Congress and state legislatures. Churches and pastors may speak out publicly for or against any issue facing the government. They can praise or condemn a President or Congress’ actions. And they can register disgust with court rulings that are an affront to their faith.

All in all, it has been the left’s propaganda over the last 60 years that has stifled church’s activities more so than the actual provisions of the Johnson Amendment. Christians often don’t know the law, so they believe what the atheists are telling them.

In recent years, the government has become increasingly hostile to the Christian faith in America. Various government agencies have used the Johnson Amendment to threaten churches into silence when, in fact, the churches were not in violation of any rules. This is reason enough to repeal the Johnson Amendment. It is being abused by government fascists – determined to censor speech they don’t like.

Now, about Trump’s demagoguery on this issue – does anyone honestly think Donald Trump knew a thing about the Johnson Amendment even a year ago? Of course not! Trump has been coached all through this discussion by his “Christian” minions, like Mike Huckabee. He was taught the talking point and how to use it in his stump speeches before “evangelical” audiences.

On that same note, does anyone seriously think Trump will remember anything about the Johnson Amendment if he should become President and doesn’t need evangelical votes to save his campaign anymore?

Nope. Sorry folks, out-of-sight-out-of-mind.

But, Trump’s demagoguery doesn’t stop there when it comes to the Johnson Amendment and religious freedom. He has been crowing that if he’s elected President, he will repeal the Johnson Amendment. Now, keep in mind (because it surely isn’t in his), Trump is running for President, not emperor.

The reality is that even if Trump becomes President, he has no unilateral power to repeal the Johnson Amendment. This was part of a law passed by Congress. Therefore, any attempt to repeal it must also come through both houses of Congress. The only way Trump will have anything to do with its repeal is to sign a bill passed by Congress into law. But, absent a movement in Congress to repeal it, Trump can do nothing to change current law. To attempt to do so by “executive order” would be going far beyond any of the unconstitutional power grabs President Obama has attempted and Congress has been impotent to attempt to stop.

If Trump believes he is above the Constitution, then we American Christians have far greater problems than the Johnson Amendment. Apparently most of Trump’s “evangelical” support is comprised of the “Constitutionally ignorant.” All he has to do is mention its repeal to “evangelical” audiences and he gets wildly applauded – just like the low information mobs screamed every time he mentioned “building the wall.”

This is sad, really. Christians in America are rightly scared of a radical secular movement, hell-bent on wiping us all out. But, to put our full faith and trust in a man who is really clueless about how things work is just begging for disaster.

Religious freedom in America will not come at the hands (or mouth) of one “savior.” It will take the efforts of millions of Christians all across the nation to press our rights at every level of government. Until we have a majority in Congress and every state legislature who revere the Constitution and its 1st Amendment protections, we will not be secure in our Freedom of Religion.

Oh, and by the way, Mr. Trump – the Savior we currently worship is more than sufficient, thank you very much. We need no additional messiahs to grant us favors!

Russ Hepler

Russ Hepler is a pastor, teacher, political activist, author, and conference speaker with over 30 years of experience. He holds a B.A. from Messiah College and an M.A.R. from Evangelical School of Theology. He has been an issues’ advocate, a campaign volunteer for local, state, and federal candidates, Regional Field Director for PA Christian Coalition, president of a county chapter of Pennsylvanians for Human Life, local Republican Committeeman, and an elected member of a town council. He is also a former and current homeschooler and taught in a Christian school (middle school History and Bible) for a number of years. He was formerly a blog writer for The Federalist Papers Project with over 900 articles published. He has been a guest on the American Family Radio program Today’s Issues with Tim Wildmon and on the Bill Martinez Live radio show. One of his sermons – Father’s Day – Where Have All the Heroes Gone? – was featured on the American Pastors’ Network. His first book – Yes! We Can Turn This Nation Around! A Practical Guide for Christian Political Involvement – was published in 2012. It has recently been updated and expanded for 2016 – Yes! We STILL Can Turn This Nation Around! An Updated and Expanded Practical Guide for Christian Political Involvement. Both works are available at He and his wife, Sherry, have founded Transformation 1202 Ministries to educate, encourage, and challenge people of faith to get involved in the political and cultural issues of our day. The ministry has a website, a blog, and a Facebook page: Turn This Nation Around.