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What Is the Johnson Amendment, and Why Is It So Controversial?

What Is the Johnson Amendment, and Why Is It So Controversial?

Throughout Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, he spoke about the not-so-widely known Johnson amendment, and how if elected, he would make sure it was repealed.

In his remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast, he told the crowd that he would “totally destroy” the amendment and received applause. But research—most recently from the National Association of Evangelicals—shows that the majority of people, including pastors, are not necessarily in favor of the repeal.

This latest survey puts the discussion of the Johnson amendment back in the national spotlight. But, of course, that doesn’t mean everyone understands exactly what’s going on. Here’s what you need to know:

The Johnson Amendment

The Johnson amendment is a tax code amendment enacted in 1954 by then-Senator Lyndon B. Johnson to keep any tax-exempt organizations from participating in political campaigns, whether it is for or against a specific candidate.

Johnson’s bill was passed by a Republican-majority Congress and signed into law by President Eisenhower, also a Republican. The purpose behind the bill was to silence some nonprofit groups campaigning against Johnson, and was never really aimed at churches specifically—it covers houses of worship, religious charities, educational nonprofits and scientific nonprofit organizations—but in thinking about the Johnson amendment, churches seem to be the main focus.

The amendment restricts nonprofits from making political donations, comparing a specific candidate or party’s platform to the position of that church or the Church and requires the organizations to invite both parties to speak, if they’re inviting political speakers.

Why It’s Controversial

When the amendment was proposed and later passed, it was not controversial. It was seen as a natural progression of the separation of Church and state. Only in recent years has the amendment become controversial. Many conservative Republicans feel that keeping tax-exempt organizations out of politics is putting a strain on the First Amendment rights of those organizations.

A call to repeal the amendment was even put into the GOP’s platform for the first time in 2016.

In 2008, the Alliance Defending Freedom, a nonprofit that focuses on religious liberty, held its first Pulpit Freedom Sunday where pastors around the country directly broke the law, recorded it and submitted it to the IRS in hopes of seeing some form of retribution. As Pulpit Freedom Sundays have continued, more than 2,000 churches have violated the law and only one has been audited by the IRS and that didn’t lead to any punishment.

Though Republicans seem to be all-in on repealing the amendment, it seems the majority of people—including members of the clergy—do not want the leader of their house of worship to preach about politics or to endorse a candidate or party.

LifeWay asked people for their reaction to the statement: “I believe it is appropriate for pastors to publicly endorse candidates for public office during a church service.” In 2008, 86 percent of the respondents disagreed that it was appropriate, and when LifeWay conducted the same survey in 2015, 79 percent said that the endorsement would be inappropriate.

In 2013, Pew Research Center found that going back to 2002, about two-thirds of Americans (66 percent) didn’t think that places of worship should endorse candidates. That held true across age groups, levels of education and religions.

Most recently in 2016, Pew Research found that while 47 percent of people want their place of worship to discuss political matters at the pulpit, compared to 49 percent who don’t, 66 percent still agreed that a political endorsement is where the line should be drawn.

Black Protestants and white evangelicals were among the highest identified people to want their places of worship to weigh in on social issues at 67 percent and 63 percent respectively, but only 45 percent and 37 percent respectively responded that candidates should be endorsed by their churches.

Most telling is that based on this survey, only 33 percent of Republicans and those who lean Republican say that they think endorsements should come from their places of worship.

In February, the National Association of Evangelicals surveyed evangelical leaders to determine whether or not they believed they should be endorsing candidates from the pulpit and 89 percent said no. Many of those who said no also said that while they didn’t think pastors should endorse, they also didn’t believe the government should be able to punish them for it.

What Repeal Could Look Like

Logistically, if President Trump were able to convince Congress to pass the repeal, Congress would not be able to use the Constitution as the reason because the Supreme Court previously ruled that nonprofits having a right to free speech didn’t include subsidized free speech.

It would also be nearly impossible to allow churches and other places of worship to be politically active without allowing other nonprofits—including organizations like Planned Parenthood—to do the same.

The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty sent a letter to leaders of Congress and members involved with tax code legislation to ask them to keep the amendment intact. The letter was signed by 99 religious organizations and includes Muslim, Catholic and Hindu groups.

In part, the letter asked for the Johnson amendment to be left untouched because of the integrity and independence it left to houses of worship.


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. 

Houses of worship often speak out on issues of justice and morality and do good works within the community but may also labor to adequately fund their ministries. Permitting electioneering in churches would give partisan groups incentive to use congregations as a conduit for political activity and expenditures. Changing the law would also make them vulnerable to individuals and corporations who could offer large donations or a politician promising social service contracts in exchange for taking a position on a candidate.


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