Why some bishops have it wrong on the Johnson Amendment

Throughout his campaign, Donald Trump had promised the American people that he would work to repeal the Johnson Amendment. This unprecedented statement 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 largely neutral and unconcerned, if not 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.” And many of our Catholic leaders have likewise shared similar views.

What concerns me about this response and others like it, however, is that it fails to address the far wider implications of this law than what is said in the pulpit. Let us remember, the Johnson Amendment not only restricts free speech of pastors in churches, but it also restricts the free speech any non-profit organization, including such religious organizations like EWTN. So why do our Catholic leaders seem to want to focus on homilies?

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.

It bewilders me that that a law that restricts free speech of Churches would not have greater opposition among our Catholic leaders. Granted, one needs prudence and pastoral charity when dealing with such delicate matters. But at the same time, one also needs to do the right thing. 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 besides, even if 99.9% of homilies are non-political, what about the other 0.1% of the time during an election season? Do not priests also have a right to freely talk about the implications of Catholic teaching in politics once or twice during an election cycle? 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 or Church retribution?

This is just common sense: Any law that grants more freedom of speech to Catholics 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. (as it is said, “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, if he is rational and reasonable, would likewise agree.


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