While Donald Trump panders to the Christian right by promising to repeal the Johnson Amendment, the far-right leader of the American Pastors Network, Sam Rohrer, recently admitted that the law actually does not prevent churches or pastors from doing virtually anything at all.
As host Perry Atkinson pointed out, even with the Johnson Amendment currently in place, “we can do petition drives in our church, we can talk about issues, we can talk about anything that is political, we just cannot endorse or suggest recommending a vote for a candidate.” He noted that pastors are already allowed to basically do anything short of using their church or its resources to support a candidate for office, but many pastors are nevertheless reluctant to get involved in the political process.
While Atkinson hoped that repealing the Johnson Amendment would make pastors more willing to engage in politics, Rohrer declared that repealing the amendment probably won’t make a difference because pastors were “never muzzled” in the first place and already have great freedom to speak out on political issues but simply choose not to do so.
“At the end of the day, I do not believe that [the Johnson Amendment] has been the reason for silent pulpits in America,” Rohrer said. “It is not the real reason. Because, in reality, any pastor who knew what the provision were knew that they, as a pastor, never lost their First Amendment right. Any pastor always, even according to the Johnson Amendment, could stand up and say, ‘I am personally supporting candidate X.’ What the only provision was that the organization, as a church, could not say, ‘We, as a church, endorse such and such a candidate’ or use the church facilities or the church copiers or the meetings room for a particular candidate. That’s all it was. So, in reality, the pastor himself was never muzzled on his ability to say what he wanted to say.”
At the same time, this seems to me like an argument for why lifting that restriction just isn’t a big deal. It’s really a legal sham anyway. We all know that churches do endorse candidates, they just do it with a thin veneer of pretense that they’re not doing so. They use “non-partisan” voter guides to do it, or they couch it in talking about issues rather than candidates, but while pointing out which candidate supports their position. It’s a de facto endorsement and everyone recognizes that already. And even when they become extremely blatant about it and endorse candidates in an official, de jure way, the IRS ignores it and doesn’t enforce the law anyway. So what’s the point of even having it?