As more Christian churches push harder into right-wing politics, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) will not tackle apparent violations of federal law, ProPublica and the Texas Tribune reported on October 30 2022.
The two news sites said that they had uncovered an amount of violations of the Johnson Amendment (which forbids churches and other 501(c)(3) groups from engaging in campaign activity) that was greater than “the total number of churches the federal agency has investigated for intervening in political campaigns over the past decade.”
In spite of that, they said, the IRS dodged their questions:
An IRS spokesperson said that the agency “cannot comment on, neither confirm nor deny, investigations in progress, completed in the past nor contemplated.” Asked about enforcement efforts over the past decade, the IRS pointed the news organizations to annual reports that do not contain such information.
Named after then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson and approved by Congress in 1954, the amendment requires that 501(c)(3) groups “not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”
During his time as president of the United States, Donald Trump claimed — falsely, as is frequently the case — that his administration “got rid” of the amendment. But what he actually did in May 2017 was sign an executive order directing the Treasury Department to ensure that it did not take “any adverse action against any individual, house of worship, or other religious organization” discussing politics at the pulpit.
Religious expert David Brockman, a scholar at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, said that Trump’s actions, while not a direct hands-off order, did give “some politically-minded evangelical leaders a sense that the Johnson Amendment just isn’t really an issue anymore, and that they can go ahead and campaign for or against candidates or positions from the pulpit.”
The two publications reported that they had found numerous Johnson violations throughout 2022:
In January, an Alaska pastor told his congregation that he was voting for a GOP candidate who is aiming to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, saying the challenger was the “only candidate for Senate that can flat-out preach.” During a May 15 sermon, a pastor in Rocklin, California, asked voters to get behind “a Christian conservative candidate” challenging Gov. Gavin Newsom. And in July, a New Mexico pastor called Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham “beyond evil” and “demonic” for supporting abortion access. He urged congregants to “vote her behind right out of office” and challenged the media to call him out for violating the Johnson Amendment.
The amendment does allow for pastors to endorse candidates, so long as they do not do so at “official” church functions; according to ProPublica and the Tribune, some Texas churches have attempted to circumvent this rule by claiming that they have “discovered” that members of their respective congregations were seeking office:
“We’re not endorsing a candidate. We’re not doing that. But we just thought because they’re a member of the family of God, that you might want to know if someone in the family and this family of churches is running,” said Robert Morris, who leads the Gateway megachurch in Southlake and served as a member of Trump’s evangelical advisory board.
On the same day, Doug Page gave a similar message less than 5 miles away at First Baptist Grapevine.
“And so what we decided to do is look within our church families and say, ‘Who do we know that’s running for office?’ Now, let me clarify with you. This is not an endorsement by us. We are not endorsing anyone. However, if you’re part of a family, you’d like to know if Uncle Bill is running for office, right? And so that’s all we’re going to do is simply inform you.”
Reportedly eight of nine candidates named in these discussions won their respective elections.
In all, ProPublica and the Tribune found 20 violations of the Johnson Amendment dating back to the period preceding the 2020 presidential election; the vast majority of them involved churches endorsing Republican Party candidates. We contacted the IRS seeking comment but have yet to hear back.
The report comes amid more concern over the rise of Christian nationalism to dominate Republican politics; a September 2022 survey conducted by the University of Maryland found that 61 persent of GOP respondents said they supported calling the U.S. a “Christian nation,” even as 57 percent of them — along with 81 percent of Democratic Party respondents and 70 percent of independents — said that that would be unconstitutional.
As religion professor and author Bradley Onishi wrote in an October 2022 op-ed for NBC News:
The “Christian” in Christian nationalism is really a cultural identity that uses Christian symbols and myths to bind together American nationalism to white ethnicity. In other words, it provides a transcendent authority to a movement that seeks to consolidate political power and, often, maintain white ethno-cultural standards.
One leading figure behind the renewed effort to cement Christian nationalism atop the GOP, he and other experts noted, is former U.S. National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn.
“He is spearheading the attack on our democracy, which is coming from many quarters, and he is affiliated with many of these sectors, from the military to Christian nationalism to election denial to extremist groups,” historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat said in a report produced by Associated Press and PBS’s Frontline news magazine. “All of this comes together to present a very live threat. And he’s at the center.”
Retired U.S. Army Col. Doug Mastriano — who attended the rally that turned into the January 6 2021 coup attempt at the U.S. Capitol — has also seized on this phenomenon in his campaign to be Pennsylvania’s governor; as the Washington Post reported in May 2022:
Mastriano’s use of religion and politics is similar to Trump’s in that neither look to big denominations or established clergy or church sermons for influence. They instead tap into how disaffiliated Americans are becoming from organized religion. (Less than half of Americans belong to a congregation and three in 10 say they have no religious affiliation altogether.) Religious identity and practice are becoming hyper individualized, with no need for a denomination or clergy member to validate a person’s beliefs. People can be devoutly Christian whichever way they choose, including by following a political candidate’s message.
GOP strategist Chris Nicholas told the newspaper that Mastriano’s supporters have a “fervor” akin to religious zeal.
“A lot of these folks don’t understand the Constitution,” he said. “You have to remind them there is no religious test in the Constitution. You have a lot of folks who are hardcore super MAGA Trumpers and they have merged that with their Christianity, and it’s become one and the same.”
Update 11/2/2022, 11:50 a.m. PST: Updated to reflect that the Texas Tribune and ProPublica found 20 apparent Johnson Amendment violations between 2020 and 2022. — ag