Is a pastor free to preach on whatever he wishes without fearing censorship or control from the government?
At first blush, this question might seem rather ridiculous in the “land of the free.” After all, it was for religious freedom that the pilgrims came to these shores almost 400 years ago.
It was here, two centuries later, that pastors inflamed the hearts of the people for independence — so much so that revolutionary colonial pastors were named the “Black Regiment” because of their clerical robes and courageous support for liberty. American pastors were just as outspoken in calling for the abolition of slavery and pushing for civil rights.
All of which makes next week’s commemoration of Religious Freedom Day ring a little hollow in the hearts of some Americans. What’s the need for a day focused on religious liberty? When was the last time you heard of a pastor being censored by the government? “My pastor seems free enough,” you say, “when he gets in the pulpit to preach every Sunday.”
Perception is not always reality, and one subtle but potent threat to religious freedom has been quietly infiltrating the churches of America since 1954. Lyndon Johnson — then a powerful senator from Texas facing a tough re-election battle — found the road back to Capitol Hill effectively blocked by two influential private nonprofits who accused him of being soft on communism.
Together, these nonprofits — one run by publisher Frank Gannett and the other by Texas oil billionaire H.L. Hunt — distributed tens of thousands of pieces of literature against Johnson’s re-election bid. The two men knew how to influence people and, in Johnson’s mind, had to be stopped to ensure his success.
Johnson hit on an ingenious plan to silence Hunt and Gannett. On July 2, 1954, he appeared on the floor of the Senate to offer an amendment to a pending tax overhaul bill. Johnson’s amendment passed easily by a unanimous voice vote with no debate or hearings. The amendment prohibited nonprofits from supporting or opposing candidates for office.
Johnson’s amendment did more than stop the opposition of Gannett and Hunt in its tracks. It turned 200 years of American church history on its ear. The new law authorized the federal government — for the first time ever — to actually punish a pastor for preaching about candidates during an election season.
Since that day more than half a century ago, pastors have been increasingly censored by the IRS from speaking freely from their pulpits during election seasons. Pastors who firmly believe that their faith has something to say about the candidates running for office must now remain silent, or else risk losing their church’s tax-exempt status.
In other words, for 55 years, the IRS has been authorized as a state speech police, monitoring — and censoring — what American pastors say to their congregations.
Now, whether you believe that your pastor should preach about candidates during election season or not, the point is that it’s not in the interest of religious freedom to allow the government to make that decision for us.
Totalitarianism comes to a nation by many trails … and the Johnson Amendment is one clearly marked path. Today, our pastors are not free to preach about candidates and elections; tomorrow they may not be free to preach on other topics.
Religious freedom is too important to be left to the whim of those winds. It is time to get rid of the Johnson Amendment and move the government out of the pulpits of America.
Erik Stanley is senior legal counsel and head of the Pulpit Initiative for the Alliance Defense Fund (www.telladf.org).