Last week, President Trump issued an executive order.
The order entitled “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty” professes to extend political speech protections for pastors and religious organizations, aiming to let them talk about politics without penalty.
The executive order’s key feature: fulfilling a Trump campaign promise to end the Johnson Amendment, legislation that has discouraged non-profits, including churches, from endorsing political candidates for six decades. (Despite Trump’s claims that many wanted this relief, research from last year didn’t support this statement.)
While most non-profits and churches have refrained from explicit endorsements, the IRS has largely taken a hands-off role in enforcing the law.
“The IRS usually has not enforced the provision,” said Thomas Berg, a religious liberty scholar.
So what keeps the government silent? While it makes sense that the government would want a check on “powerful, tax-exempt organizations using the benefit of tax-exemption to toss the election one way or another with big money,” the IRS would quickly run into First Amendment issues if it actually tried to stop churches, said Berg.
For example, pastors could get in trouble for telling their congregations “I think really the only candidate who meets the moral test is this one,” said Berg. The problem is that “you can violate the provision with less explicit statements than that.”
To discuss how The Christian Century lost its tax-exempt status, the case for churches to pay taxes, and the best way for pastors to shepherd their congregation on the issue of politics, Berg joined assistant editor Morgan Lee and editor-in-chief ...1