The Temptation of Power

The legislative and executive branches of the U.S. government are currently seeking to repeal the Johnson Amendment, the 1954 provision in the U.S. tax code that prohibits all 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations from endorsing political candidates.

What Is the Johnson Amendment?

The Johnson Amendment was an IRS tax reform bill that was successfully passed in Congress by Senator Lyndon Johnson in 1954, the same man who would later become president in 1963 following the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Churches can invite a candidate to speak at their local church if it invites the opposing candidate. Ministries, houses of worship, denominations and religious individuals can speak out on the moral and spiritual issues of the day, including getting involved in ballot referenda. But the Johnson Amendment is a prohibition on churches and nonprofit religious interest groups publicly favoring or endorsing one candidate over another. This includes the strict prohibition on financing them or organizing to campaign for them.

A Divisive Proposition

Just to be clear, repealing the Johnson Amendment by Congress with H.R. 172 is not about restoring “free speech” but about politicians receiving tax-deductible campaign financing from churches in return for giving churches unprecedented political power. As I explain below, I believe repealing this amendment will be instrumental in creating the prophetic combination of church and state Adventists have been warning about for many years, and I am extremely concerned about where this is heading.

If you donate money to your favorite candidate for public office, that donation is not tax-deductible. But under H.R. 172, churches could use up to 25 percent of their church budget to endorse candidates and campaign for them. That means if your church decided to campaign for a candidate, a significant portion of your offerings could go straight to a political candidate your pastor or church board decided to support.[1]

While many organizations, including the Seventh-day Adventist Church, speak out boldly on the issues of the day and get involved in ballot referenda related to policies that could affect us, the repeal of the Johnson Amendment crosses the line because it involves endorsing or opposing particular candidates for office. These are the people who need more money than ever before to run their campaigns and who will come knocking on the door of your church asking for an endorsement.

Gutting Church Coffers

Tim Delaney, National Council of Nonprofits president and CEO, recently released the following statement:

“Nonprofits are already free to exercise their First Amendment rights to advocate for their missions. Allowing political operatives to push for endorsements would put nonprofits in a position where they become known as Democratic charities or Republican charities and put missions at risk.

“Furthermore, those who donate to nonprofits want those contributions to go toward advancing the mission, not toward advancing the careers of politicians or lining the pockets of political consultants. Getting involved in supporting or opposing candidates will have a chilling effect on contributions on which many nonprofits rely.”[2]

The repeal of the Johnson Amendment now on the table — either by congressional action or a presidential executive order to the IRS not to enforce it — and the Adventist Church opposes this move. The church in North America will continue to follow Ellen White’s counsel to remain politically neutral and steer clear of divisive political endorsements if the Johnson Amendment is repealed.

The irony is that 71 percent of Americans are against repealing the 1954 Johnson Amendment, which forbids churches and religious interest groups from endorsing, campaigning and contributing finances to political candidates. This includes 56 percent of white evangelical Protestants, who oppose allowing houses of worship to officially endorse and financially support political candidates while retaining their tax-exempt status.[3]

The Temptation of Power and a Prophetic Warning

While many good Christian people think it would be wonderful if their church had more pull in Washington, D.C., this movement has serious prophetic implications. Note Ellen White’s prophetic observation in The Great Controversy regarding Revelation 13:11–15:

“In order for the United States to form an image of the beast [that is, in the likeness of papal Rome], the religious power [or "powers"] must so control the civil government that the authority of the state will also be employed by the church to accomplish her own ends” (p. 443, commentary added).

The ability to use tax-free donations to endorse candidates will give the churches huge amounts of political power and will manipulate, dominate and eventually control the government at all levels through the electoral and policymaking processes.

And what happens when the church gets this kind of power?

Ellen White has thoughts on that too: “Whenever the church has obtained secular power, she has employed it to punish dissent from her doctrines. Protestant churches that have followed in the steps of Rome by forming alliance with worldly powers, have manifested a similar desire to restrict liberty of conscience. ... The founders of the nation wisely sought to guard against the employment of secular power on the part of the church, with its inevitable result — intolerance and persecution” (The Great Controversy, p. 443, 442).

Could that happen in America? Will churches seek to use the power of the state to punish those who dissent from their doctrines? We can already see some churches would love to have this power, and White warns that we will one day experience persecution in America. That is why this matters and why we need to work now to preserve liberty of conscience.

An Appeal to Christ’s Kingdom

Before 1954, religious organizations had the good sense to remain focused on their gospel missions. American churches were fairly disparate, disunited, and pretty much politically and socially isolated. But today evangelical Protestants and Catholics are very much united on many issues — issues even we can and do agree with regarding shared concerns. If we fail to ascertain the larger picture, we will fail to be the voice of prophetic warning in our otherwise well-meaning attempts to champion and preserve religious freedom. That freedom includes not only the constitutional guarantee to the free exercise of religion, but also the constitutional guarantee church and state will remain separate.

Once the Johnson Amendment is gone, politicians who want to maintain power will be asking large churches to commit their resources to their elections, and church members will feel religiously compelled to support them. The resulting centers of combined religious and political influence will become the most powerful entities in America, capable of calling on politicians to enforce their plans just as White predicted in The Great Controversy.

Do not fall for the hype that the Johnson Amendment is necessary to restore your pastor’s freedom of speech, and do see the attempt to repeal it for what it is — a plan by politicians to grab your tax-deductible offering money. Pastors are already able to speak to issues. Politicians would love to be able to claim a church’s stamp of approval as “God’s favorite candidate” in return for giving churches more political power. And yes, I believe we are watching the seeds being planted in America for the combined church-state power we have been warned about in Revelation 13.

With tremendous events happening around us on a daily basis, we are the front row of history. We also have the benefit of Bible prophecy, and we know where this is going. But that knowledge is not enough. We need to work to preserve liberty of conscience so we can continue to preach — not a message of political power, but the gospel of Jesus Christ who taught us that His kingdom is not of this world.

Audio Podcasts

Listen to three short interviews on current religious liberty issues with Greg Hamilton.

Liberty Magazine - Lamb to Dragon, Part 1


Christians tend to look to Scripture to find a passageway through both the past and the present. But rarely do we fully understand the political shifts that have occurred in America's short 230-year history and how they apply to our country's significant role in prophecy. Greg Hamilton, president of the Northwest Religious Liberty Association, offers insights.

Liberty Magazine - Lamb to Dragon, Part 2


Christians tend to look to Scripture to find a passageway through both the past and the present. But rarely do we fully understand the political shifts that have occurred in America's short 230-year history and how they apply to our country's significant role in prophecy. Greg Hamilton, president of the Northwest Religious Liberty Association, offers insights.

Liberty Magazine - Fire from Heaven


Liberty Magazine enjoys a proud history of making plain the difficult and often misunderstood aspects of religious freedom. Editor Lincoln Steed shares a bit of its history and outlines the road ahead.

Sources

[1] 115th Congress, H.R.172, “To restore the Free Speech and First Amendment rights of churches and exempt organizations by repealing the 1954 Johnson Amendment,” https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/172.

[2] Tim Delaney, “National Council of Nonprofits Opposes Latest Efforts to Politicize Charitable Nonprofits and Foundations,” February 2, 2017. See more at https://www.councilofnonprofits.org/article/national-council-of-nonprofits-opposes-latest-efforts-politicize-charitable-nonprofits-and#sthash.HDJ334id.dpuf.

[3] Maggie Garrett, “A Vast Majority of Americans, Including White Evangelicals and Republicans, Believe Houses of Worship Shouldn’t Endorse Political Candidates,” Americans United for Separation of Church and State, March 22, 2017, http://au.org/blogs/wall-of-separation/a-vast-majority-of-americans-including-white-evangelicals-and-republicans.

April 28, 2017 / Feature