President Trump is fulfilling his campaign promises and repealing the Johnson Amendment -- which prohibits churches and other nonprofits from endorsing political candidates and from providing financial or other assistance to political candidates -- is one that his Religious Right allies are eager to see him keep. At the National Prayer Breakfast on February 2, Trump reiterated his intention to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment.
On January 31, the American Humanist Association and the Center for Freethought Equality co-sponsored House and Senate briefings on Capitol Hill to urge Congress to protect the Johnson Amendment. I was part of a panel with Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee and Jennifer Ahearn, policy counsel of Citizens for Responsivity and Ethics in Washington (CREW), to provided diverse perspectives on how this repeal would affect campaign finance monitoring and reporting and the harm it could cause for both religious and secular communities. The briefing and panel was organized and moderated by AHA legislative director Matt Bulger. Matt's reporting on the briefings can be found here.
The following are my thoughts presented at the panel presentations.
The Religious Right is eager to repeal the Johnson Amendment because they believe it is essential to maintaining their influence over elected officials and their power in American politics.
First, here is a short campaign lesson. People and money are the key elements of a successful political campaign. If your campaign is short of one of these elements you need to enhance the other to have a chance of winning. Political leaders who are members of, or beholden to, the Religious Right realize they are facing a people problem. The number of white Christians, the key demographic of the Religious Right, is declining. In 1992 they were 73 percent of the electorate, in 2016 they were 55 percent, and by 2024 they are projected to be just 48 percent of the active electorate (more information on these demographic changes can be found in “The End of White Christian America” by Robert P. Jones - CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute).
Many on the Religious Right may deny the science of climate change and evolution, but they can’t deny white Christians, their key to electoral success, are dwindling in numbers. This minority status will greatly reduce their influence in the electoral arena.
Political leaders from, or tied to, the Religious Right are taking short-term measures to stem this change in demographics by reducing the influence and participation of constituencies opposed to their interests. The repeal of the Johnson Amendment is a crucial element of this strategy.
These short-term measures include voter ID laws and other restrictions to suppress voter participation, gerrymandering districts to maximize the influence of desired voting populations, and of course they aim to repeal the Johnson Amendment in the fashion of Citizens United to increase the influence of money in our elections.
The repeal of the Johnson Amendment has the potential of opening up the flood gates for unlimited and untraceable money in elections. In 2012 the estimated annual income from individual donations to U.S. congregations was 74.5 billion dollars. This total only includes annual donations to congregations and does not include religious organizations such as educational institutions, health providers, charities, and businesses -- just congregations. The 74.5 billion dollar estimated annual donations also does not include the value of financial and physical assets held by congregations – it is just the influx of new cash in the door (as reported by the Socio-economic Contributions of Religion to American Society by Brian Grim of Georgetown University and Melissa Grim of the Newseum Institute). The total expenses of the 2016 election for all federal offices was around $7 billion (2.7 presidential and 4.3 congressional per Open Secrets). So even without additional contributions congregations could divert less than 10% of their donations and easily exceed the current campaign spending in federal elections.
Repeal of the Johnson Amendment in addition to other measures could, for the short-term, 4, 8, 16, perhaps even longer, hold off the nation’s demographic changes from producing political changes, allowing the Religious Right to retain its strong power base.
As the PAC Coordinator for the Freethought Equality Fund, I represent the humanist, atheist, nontheist community, which is growing, and is looking forward to taking a more active role in our democracy.
The Freethought Equality Fund PAC is a small but ambitious political action committee in Washington. Our modest goal is to elect atheists, humanists, and other nontheists to public office. Being an atheist in the electoral arena is a powerful political taboo and we are determined to remove the unjustified negative stigma against atheists. We have a lot of work to do – fortunately the numbers are on our side. The religiously unaffiliated has grown from 16% in 2007 to 23% in 2014 and a third of Millennials are unaffiliated so we are projected to continue to grow (as reported by the Pew Research Center). According to the latest Pew research the religiously unaffiliated is the largest “religious group” in America, surpassing evangelical Christians and Catholics.
Sadly, our size is not reflected in our political participation. Our voting rate was 12 percent in both the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections and we had a modest increase to 15 percent in 2016 - remember for the general population we went from 16 percent in 2007 to nearly 25 percent today. This participation rate is unacceptable; however, the secular community doesn’t have a strong motivation to vote. Like any constituency, we would like to be courted, or at least acknowledged that we exist, by political parties and candidates, and we want to have candidates we can identify with. The stigma against the nonreligious in the electoral arena is unacceptable. Our democracy is impoverished, and the quality of political candidates diminished, if nearly a quarter of the population is effectively removed from the electoral arena.
As for candidates, my PAC had a very successful year in 2016. We quintupled the number of elected officials who identify with our community at the state level. That sounds impressive; however, we started with just three elected officials prior to 2016. Our success in 2016 means we have a whopping one-quarter of one percent of state elected officials who identify with our community. We need an additional 1,400 to 1,500 elected officials at the state and federal level to reach parity with our population. As you can tell, our efforts are just getting underway. A large influx of untraceable campaign cash from religious groups could easily swamp our modest efforts.
However, for any reader who may now be motivated to support the repeal of the Johnson Amendment to prevent atheists and humanists from winning elections, let me provide a little caution. The repeal of the Johnson Amendment could produce a backlash that would speed up the demographic changes the Religious Right fears by alienating the very base it is trying to maintain.
I grew up in a white fundamentalist Christian church in the 1960s and its members were not politically active. Their belief was that politics was corrupt and a corrupting influence for everyone involved so they stayed away from politics. Integrating schools, removing prayer in the public schools, abortion rights, and LGBT rights made them rethink their position on political involvement, but they still see politics as corrupt. Having endorsements and money flow directly through their churches may make this political corruption too entwined with their greater desire to maintain their religious purity. This may make members leave these politicized churches and perhaps even rethink their adherence to Christianity. Repealing the Johnson Amendment could expedite the very problem the Religious Right is trying to postpone.
Lastly, there is nothing that prevents the leaders of churches from forming political action committees separate from their churches and have these PACs follow the same rules that the Freethought Equality Fund and all other PACs follow. The only reasons not to do this is perhaps laziness in filling out the necessary forms to create PACs, a refusal to act outside of their role as religious leaders, or the desire to have large sums of money flow through their churches – but they should be careful Sloth, Pride, and Greed are still three of Christianity’s Seven Deadly Sins.
Ron Millar is the PAC coordinator for the Freethought Equality Fund. The mission of the PAC is to change the face of American politics and to achieve equality by increasing the number of open humanists and atheists in public office at all levels of government. The PAC is affiliated with the Center for Freethought Equality, which is the advocacy and political arm of the American Humanist Association. Ron has spent more than thirty years in the nation’s capital working for nonprofit education and advocacy groups. Membership to the Center for Freethought Equality is free at http://www.cfequality.org/membership/. Members receive updates on the activities of the Freethought Equality Fund PAC.