Few elements in human relationships are more volatile than the mixture of religion and politics, so it’s more than a bit unsettling today to see the Trump administration and its allies in Congress stirring them into another combustible subject: taxes.
But buried in the “tax reform” bill unveiled by House Republicans and quickly endorsed by the White House is repeal of tax law that for more than 60 years has put at least some distance between church and state.
The proposal would allow church leaders to bestow their blessings and rally their flocks in support of candidates of their choice without fear that their electioneering would endanger their churches’ tax exemptions.
“The mixing of partisan politics, religion and money will not end well and has no business in this legislation,” said Common Cause President Karen Hobert Flynn. She predicted “there will inevitably be bad actors and money will change hands for endorsements and more,” as candidates seek help from churchmen and women.
Churchgoing candidates are a staple of most political campaigns. Democratic candidates routinely show up among African-American congregants on October Sundays in election years; Republican aspirants typically worship in evangelical and mostly-white Christian churches. It’s common to see ministers of all faiths interrupt worship to recognize such visitors and with a friendly nod or a few words let church members know their electoral preferences.
But the tax bill unveiled today would give churchmen and women license to campaign more openly from their pulpits and in their Sunday School classes, leaving it to the Internal Revenue Service to decide whether their electioneering crosses a deliberately blurred legal line.
If the current “bright line” limiting church politicking is removed, “abuses will inevitably follow and the loopholes will be expanded,” Hobert Flynn said. “Members of the clergy overwhelmingly support the Johnson Amendment,” the tax provision that since its passage in 1954 has limited their political involvement, she noted.
The bill also gives churches political freedom not enjoyed by charities like the Red Cross, the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association. Those and other secular charities operate under the same section of the tax code as churches; they pay no taxes on the tithes and offerings they collect each week and their donors can deduct those contributions on their income tax returns.
Under the administration’s proposal, leaders of those charities would put their tax status at risk if they appealed to their members and/or contributors to support or oppose particular candidates. Churchmen and women would be under no such restraint.
Office: Common Cause National
Issues: Money in Politics