So what does Donald Trump mean when he says he wants to “get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment”?
Trump always talks about “churches,” but the proviso, inserted in the tax code in 1954, forbids all tax exempt non-profits (organized under Internal Revenue Code section 501(c)3, and therefore referred to generically as 501(c)3 organizations) from contributing to political campaigns.
If the law were changed to exempt churches only, the courts would have to decide whether than created an unconstitutional “establishment of religion,” but it doesn’t require a law degree to see that allowing tax-exempt churches to attack tax-exempt Planned Parenthood by running campaigns against politicians who take positions favorable to reproductive rights, but forbidding Planned Parenthood from defending itself, would be grossly unfair.
Moreover, churches – unlike most other non-profits – aren’t required to disclose their donors. So allowing them to serve as campaign vehicles would not only convert them into tax-deductible super-PACs, it would allow unlimited amounts of hidden money to come into politics. (Citizens United and its progeny have already severely weakened disclosure rules.) Disclosure has been, until now, regarded as an invaluable protection against corruption. If Trump gets his way, any individual, privately-held corporation, partnership, or LLC could purchase influence with unlimited, undisclosed, tax-deductible campaign contributions simply by laundering them through a church, or even a fake “church” organized solely as a pass-through for bribes. (Again, for religious-freedom reasons, the IRS is very wary of deciding that a group calling itself a church isn’t really a church: the New Testament rule “wherever two or three are gathered” about covers it.)
But wait! It gets worse. If churches can gather money without disclosing their donors – and obviously that degree of privacy protection is required for the free exercise of religion – and spend that money to run political campaigns, then the market is open for foreign as well as domestic corruption. The Russian, Chinese, Saudi, and Iranian governments would all, predictably, either find congregations already recognized by the IRS to use as front groups or incorporate new ones. Of course a group organized as a mosque might not be able to wield much influence without stirring up opposition, but nothing bars the Saudis or the Iranians from paying some stooges to set up a fake Baptist church. Nor is an outfit organized as a church for IRS purposes have the word “church” (synagogue, mosque, temple, whatever) in its name; many people would spot “Society of Friends” as meaning Quakers, but you and I could start a group tomorrow called “Truth Tellers,” incorporate it as a church, and then run political ads with the trailer “This message brought to you by the Truth Tellers.”
So, like most of Trump’s ideas, this one reduces mostly to corruption and the sacrifice of American sovereignty to foreign – especially Russian – influence. And of course that won’t keep the tame preachers of the Christian Right from backing him all the way.