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This Week in God, 7.21.18

Congressional Republicans are still fighting to allow churches to engage in partisan politicking without risking their tax-exempt status.
The sun rises behind the steeple of a church, Aug. 23, 2015, in Plains, Ga. (Photo by David Goldman/AP)
The sun rises behind the steeple of a church, Aug. 23, 2015, in Plains, Ga.

First up from the God Machine this week is the latest effort from congressional Republicans to empower houses of worship to engage in partisan politicking without fear of consequence. Politico  reported the other day:

The House voted Thursday to make it harder for the government to punish churches that get involved in politics.In a 217-199 vote, lawmakers approved legislation barring the IRS from revoking the tax-exempt status of churches that back political candidates, unless it is specifically approved by the commissioner of the agency.The provision, buried in a budget measure setting IRS funding for the upcoming year, amounts to a backdoor way around the so-called Johnson amendment, a half-century-old prohibition on nonprofits getting involved in political campaign activities.

The House vote came just three days after the Trump administration made it easier for dark-money entities to keep their largest donors hidden from public scrutiny.

To be sure, Republicans have spent much of the last year and a half targeting the Johnson amendment through a variety of vehicles -- it was nearly included in the GOP's massive tax-cut package late last year -- but those efforts involved trying to rewrite the relevant portion of the tax code.

This latest measure takes a different approach, leaving the letter of the law in place, but neutering the policy by making it vastly more difficult for the Internal Revenue Service to impose penalties that deter religious leaders from breaking the law.

And as of Thursday, a majority of the House signed off on the change, voting to create a system in which churches and other ministries could engage in partisan politicking, confident in the knowledge that their tax-exempt status would likely be left alone.

Regular readers are probably familiar with the broader fight, but it's been a while since we went over the basics, so let's recap.

Under current federal tax law, tax-exempt houses of worship are not allowed to intervene in partisan political campaigns. Ministries can obviously speak out on moral and spiritual issues of the day, and can even get involved in ballot referenda related to various policies, but churches and other houses of worship can’t take steps to help (or hurt) candidates or political parties.

This law was created in 1954, thanks to the efforts of then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson, and for the most part, it hasn’t been especially controversial.

But as the religious right movement became a more prominent fixture in Republican politics, the Johnson amendment became problematic. Efforts to create a political machine involving pastors and congregations were stunted by the law – because if a religious leader can’t tell his or her congregation who to vote for without risking the ministry’s tax-exempt status, the movement’s potency has limits.

And so the religious right decided the Johnson amendment had to go. Conservative activists even came up with an argument that seems vaguely compelling at first blush: those who lead houses of worship should be able to say whatever they wish to their congregants, and it’s not the government’s job to intervene. The First Amendment’s free-speech protections, the argument goes, should be applied to ministers in the pulpit.

What’s wrong with that argument? Quite a bit, actually.

When it comes to electioneering and tax law, houses of worship have effectively made a deal with the government: the pastors will enjoy the benefits of a tax-exemption, and in exchange, their ministry will be non-partisan. Donald Trump and many congressional Republicans now want to scrap the deal: the churches should get the benefit of a tax exemption from the government, without any of the conditions.

As for the First Amendment, note that tax-exempt entities, including churches, already have the option of getting involved in partisan politics, endorsing candidates, and intervening in campaigns to their hearts’ content – but they can’t do this while keeping their tax exemption.

The consequences could be dramatic. Imagine the campaign-finance mess that would exist if parties, candidates, and PACs could funnel campaign donations through tax-exempt churches, free of oversight.

For that matter, imagine if a foreign government, eager to secretly help put a specific candidate in power, decided to start funneling money to specific churches, knowing that those ministries would in turn use the resources to support that candidate. The churches would never have to disclose any of this, and the public would be kept in the dark.

The GOP proposal fixes a problem that doesn’t exist. There’s no public demand for such a change, and there’s no reason to create this campaign-finance nightmare.

But the efforts continue anyway. This week wasn't the first time House Republicans approved a change to the status quo, but in each previous instance, the Senate has balked. We'll see soon enough whether this time is any different.