One of the first things North Carolina congressmen Walter Jones, Jr. did on the very first day of the 114th US Congress was file House Resolution 153. The bill would repeal a law that keeps churches out of politics. Pastors would be permitted to endorse political candidates even from the pulpit.
Probably this will come to nothing.
The non-partisan GovTrack, an open government data site, puts the likelihood of HR 153 becoming a law at zero percent. This bill will never come to a vote, probably, disappearing into the Ways and Means committee never to be heard from again.
The question is: why aren’t Republicans supporting it?
Religious conservatives are rallying around religious liberty issues, including the rights of churches to get involved in politics. In October, when a legal dispute over a petition to repeal a non-discrimination ordinance in Houston led a city lawyer to subpoena records from the churches that had organized the petition, religious conservatives went ballistic. That was a unique situation. The Johnson Amendment applies much more broadly, restricting the political activity of every church that takes a tax exemption. (Which is almost all of them).
For people fired up about government infringement on religious liberty, HR 153 would seem like a winner.
Many conservatives care about this issue. More than a third of self-identified Republicans tell Pew pollsters they not only want clergy to be able to endorse political candidates from the pulpit in principle, they want them to actually do it. The religious right continues to be the most reliable bloc of voters for the Republican party. To those voters, the 1954 bill passed by then-Senator Lyndon B. Johnson requiring tax-exempt religious organizations to refrain from politics is often seen as offensive, and understood as an attack directly on the practice of their faith. Republicans currently control both houses of Congress courtesy, in many cases, to these voters.
Nor is it just white evangelicals who want churches to get political. More than 40 percent of black Protestants want their pastors to be able to endorse political candidates. An increasing number of Americans say they want more religion in politics. Pew reports that nearly half of Americans say churches should express their views on political issues.
There are still many who support the idea of separating church and politics, of course, but it’s not like this law is actually working. One doesn’t have to look further than Houston to find pastors engaged in politics, even to the point of condemning candidates from the pulpit and organizing petitions to repeal city ordinances in their churches. They do so without losing their tax-exempt privileges, despite the Johnson Amendment.
More than a few religious right organizations distribute voter education guides to churches that blur the line between voter education and candidate endorsement. Plus, politically minded pastors all over the country break this law in annual protest with impunity. The law actually hasn’t been enforced since 2009. For technical reasons having to do with a re-organization of the Internal Revenue Service, the law can’t be enforced. Violations can’t even be investigated.
HR 153 would repeal the Johnson Amendment, which at this point is kind of a joke.
Even legal experts who are strongly opposed to churches getting involved in political campaigns say that the current system is broken. Donald B. Tobin, a tax law expert from the University of Maryland, thinks banning churches from electioneering is good for churches and good for democracy. But he says that, as it currently stands, the law is “destined for abuse.”
So why not get rid of the Johnson Amendment? Why not pass HR153?
With control both houses of Congress the GOP could do this if they wanted to. But it seems like they won’t. It seems like nothing will happen.
Nothing is what happened in the last Congress, when Walter Jones, Jr. got 25 co-sponsors for the bill before it was sent to the Ways and Means committee to die. Jones also proposed this bill—”To restore the Free Speech and First Amendment Rights of churches and exempt organizations by repealing the 1954 Johnson Amendment”—in 2011, 2007, and 2005. It never made it out of committee.
This may be Jones’ fault.
A Republican representing North Carolina’s 3rd district, Jones has a very conservative voting record but a contentious relationship with Republican Party leadership. Perhaps best known as the congressman who changed the name of french fries in the House cafeterias to “freedom fries” when the French failed to support the US invasion of Iraq, Jones later became a strong critic of the war. He wrote a personal letter to the family of each and every soldier, sailor and Marine killed in Iraq and, as Mother Jones reported, “one letter at a time, Jones’ doubts about the war began to take shape.”
He broke ranks with the Republicans. And broke them hard. “Lyndon Johnson’s probably rotting in hell right now because of the Vietnam War,” he once told a group of young conservatives. “He probably needs to move over for Dick Cheney.”
Jones took a stand against George W. Bush in 2005 proposing legislation that would require the administration to set a timeline to end the war, including troop withdrawal no later than December 2006. That same year, not incidentally, Jones proposed this bill to repeal the Johnson Amendment. Perhaps it was informed by the fact that, as an adult convert to Catholicism, he talked out his change of heart on the war with with his parish priest, who urged him to have the courage of his convictions.
Jones then stumped for the Johnson Amendment and the need to overturn it at numerous Christian conferences in 2005. He signed hundreds of copies Gag Order, a book about the Johnson Amendment written by Gary Cass, a Presbyterian pastor and advocate of dominion theology, and he amassed 60,000 signatures on a petition that he gave to Rep. Dennis Hastert, then the Republican house speaker. The bill did not come up for a vote.
The rift between Jones and his party’s leadership does not seem to have healed in the intervening years. During the last presidential election, he defied them by being one of only four Republicans in congress to vote against the party’s proposed budget, the Path to Prosperity. This was the budget that was supposed to be a cornerstone of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, and was authored by Rep. Paul Ryan, the vice presidential candidate.
Ryan, now the chairman of the Ways and Means committee, is the one who decides whether or not Jones’ signature bill, HR 153, comes up for a vote.
Divisions in the Republican Party may not be the only reason that a bill repealing the Johnson Amendment won’t get passed, though. It may be that not passing such a bill is more politically advantageous than passing it. Ever since religious right leaders allied themselves with Ronald Reagan, this has been a persistent issue. The faithful are more politically useful when they’re agitated than when they’re satisfied. Satisfied evangelicals don’t get out and vote in midterm elections. Agitated evangelicals mobilize. Reagan, for one, saw the power of “maintaining a state of perpetual mobilization,” as Sidney Blumenthal noted in The New Republic in 1984.
If anything, the efforts to keep religious conservatives agitated has grown. As Alan Noble wrote last summer, American evangelicals are now fed stories of persecution and attacks on religious liberty so consistently they sometimes struggle to distinguish fact from fiction. There are theological reasons that evangelicals and other Christians sometimes aspire to be oppressed, as Noble outlines. And there are political reasons that several “major conservative political pundits and organizations have made a name for themselves by selectively highlighting cases of alleged persecution of Christians.”
Passing HR 153 wouldn’t fit the narrative of the ever-present threat to religious liberty. It might help the voters that gave Republicans both house of congress, but it wouldn’t help those Republicans to help those voters quite that much. Taking the cynical view, the Republicans would seem to be better off keeping the toothless law that offends a little bit without actually keeping churches out of politics.
Especially since removing that offense would only give Walter Jones, Jr. a legislative victory.
Which is why, come January 2017, one of the very first things to happen on the very first day of the 115th US congress may well be another version of this bill, destined to disappear into committee, never to be heard from again.