Why some bishops have it wrong on the Johnson Amendment

Throughout his campaign, Donald Trump had promised the American people that he would do whatever he could to repeal the Johnson Amendment, should he be elected president. This unprecedented move by a presidential candidate prompted a new discussion among Catholic leaders about the implications of such an effort. To my surprise, however, the discussion did not seem to unfold in the way I was expecting, as the general response by our Catholic leaders has been more or less neutral and unconcerned, if not a little weary.

In a March 13th interview with the Register, for example, Archbishop William Lori was asked about president Trump’s effort to repeal the Johnson Amendment. His response was likewise restrained and hesitant: He said that pastors ought not to engage in partisan politics, as it can be a “distraction” from the mission of the gospel. He then concluded that, “in general, I think we would eye the adjustment of this amendment warily.”

What concerns me about this response, and others like it, is that it focuses entirely upon churches and pastors. But the Johnson Amendment has a far wider reach than merely restricting the free speech of churches and pastors. It affects any non-profit organization, including such religious organizations like EWTN.

In 2007 for example, Catholic Answers (a radio show on the Catholic channel EWTN) was fined by the IRS because it allegedly “interfered” in the 2004 presidential election by saying that John Kerry should be denied Communion. Whether you agree or not with the counsel, the point is that a Catholic organization was fined because it was responding to a question from a caller about the teachings of the Church and its practical implications.

This is just one example that shows how the Johnson Amendment appears to have a stranglehold on our non-profit Catholic organizations such as EWTN. They must walk on eggshells as a result, for fear of being censured with fines and the dissolution of their tax exempt status.

This, I believe, is an important component of the discussion that has not yet been broached by our Catholic leaders. Yes, granted, pastors ought not to engage in partisan politics. Granted, the pulpit is not a place for priests to promote one candidate over another. But what about Catholic news? What about other Catholic non-profit organizations? Do they not have a right to freely talk Catholic teaching as it relates to the political arena? And even if 99% of homilies center entirely around the gospel, what about the other 1% of the time? Do not priests also have a right to freely talk about the implications of Catholic teaching in politics once or twice during an election season? Do the laity not have a right to be informed on Catholic teaching as it relates to a certain platform or candidate? Is there not something inherently wrong with the fact that priests are afraid to even mention a person’s name during a homily, for fear of government retribution?

From a Catholic standpoint, it is important we are clear on this point: Anything that grants more freedom to Catholics to publicly witness to the gospel in every facet of life is a good thing. What Mr. Trump is doing is a good thing. The Johnson Amendment is unconstitutional and should be revoked. After all, separation of Church and state was meant to protect churches from the state, not vs. (freedom of religion, not freedom from religion). The government has no right to restrict religion in any way. Its only duty is to protect its free exercise. And any well-formed Catholic ought to agree with this assessment.


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