If President Donald Trump follows through on a recent promise, synagogues, churches and mosques could become “conduits for unregulated dark money.”
That’s the view of Rabbi Jack Moline of the Washington-based Interfaith Alliance. On Feb. 2, Trump said at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington that he would “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits all nonprofits, including places of worship, from participating in political campaigns.
The Johnson Amendment prohibits clergy from making political endorsements on behalf of their places of worship. It also prevents all entities with 501(c) 3 nonprofit status — including synagogues and churches — from making political donations.
Moline was one of several area rabbis contacted by WJW for their views of Trump’s proposal and whether it would change the way they deal with politics from the bima. Moline said he was concerned about how allowing places of worship and charities to donate money to political campaigns would change politics.
“Places of worship accepting large sums of money that need not be reported to Federal Elections Commission would overwhelmingly change the nature of political elections in this country,” he said. “This would make Citizens United look like a good alternative,” he added, referring to the 2010 Supreme Court ruling that the government may not ban political spending by corporations in elections.
Rabbi Gil Steinlauf of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington said he is “deeply troubled” by what repealing the Johnson Amendment could mean for places of worship.
“When you politicize pulpits, it undermines what places of worship are meant to be,” he said, adding that it’s important to discuss political values, but not cross a line into political endorsements made from the pulpit. “When I’m in the context of my synagogue, it is important to protect the religious nature of the place.”
Trump, on the other hand, argued at the National Prayer Breakfast that the Johnson Amendment should be repealed because it restricts the way clergy speak about politics. He said that repealing the amendment would “allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution.”
But Rabbi Adam Raskin of Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac said repealing the Johnson Amendment wouldn’t change the way he talks to his congregation about politics.
“I can’t imagine even if it were permissible that I would endorse a candidate publicly,” said Raskin. “I do speak about issues that have political significance from time to time — if religion can’t add a moral voice to public discourse then what are we doing? But I don’t think it’s the business of clergy to tell people how to vote.”
Rabbi Daniel Zemel of Temple Micah in Washington also said that repealing the Johnson Amendment wouldn’t affect the way he addresses his congregation. “This would not change the way I act, speak or write in any way,” he said.
Repealing the Johnson Amendment was one of Donald Trump’s campaign promises and has been on the political agenda of conservative Christians. The evangelical leader Jerry Falwell Jr. said last year that repealing the amendment would “create a huge revolution for conservative Christians and for free speech.”
The amendment is named after President Lyndon Johnson, who introduced the legislation as a senator in 1954. Since it is part of the tax code, the Internal Revenue Service oversees its implementation, and Moline said that he only knows of one case in recent memory in which the IRS prosecuted a house of worship for violating the regulation.
“To hear President Trump say it, clergy in America are being muzzled and are too afraid to speak openly about the issues of the day,” Moline said in a statement. “This is a lie that has been advanced for years by the Religious Right.”
Nevertheless, Trump describes the need to repeal the Johnson amendment in dramatic terms.
“I think maybe that will be my greatest contribution to Christianity — and other religions — is to allow you, when you talk religious liberty, to go and speak openly, and if you like somebody or want somebody to represent you, you should have the right to do it,” he said in June. “You don’t have any religious freedom, if you think about it.”