How the Johnson Amendment Affects Churches


Vance Voetberg

During his run for a second term in office, President Lincoln sought political support for his re-election from an institution that was otherwise apolitical: The Church. Preaching sermons and saving the lost was the church’s job, not getting politicians elected.  

But amid the disarray and bloodshed of the Civil War, President Lincoln appealed to believers: what was being fought was evil, and what was being defended were biblical morals. Seeing this, numerous denominations and individual churches endorsed President Lincoln, lifting him to his second term—an epoch in which his leadership proved central to dismantling slavery.

For the next 90 years, American pastors maintained the constitutional right to speak freely on political matters. But in 1954, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) implemented a law that undercut churches’ constitutionally protected speech by curbing what pastors can say about elections, politicians, and legislative matters. This law is called the Johnson Amendment.  

The Johnson Amendment—if written into law prior to the Civil War—would have prevented churches from spearheading President Lincoln's reelection.


What is the Johnson Amendment?

Introduced to the U.S. tax code in 1954, the Johnson Amendment forbids 501(c)(3) charitable organizations—including churches—from participating or intervening in political campaigns for or against any candidate for public office. Taking its name from then-Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, the amendment may have originated from anti-communists in Congress trying to stifle support for radical groups attempting to influence elections.  

Johnson may have had additional motives for the amendment, including the fact that two Texas nonprofits actively campaigned against him. Unlike most amendments or legislation, the Johnson Amendment received minimal revision from Congress and was swiftly implemented into the Internal Revenue Code.  

Since its enactment, churches that operate as 501(c)(3) charitable organizations must adhere to the law or face the possibility of losing their tax-exempt status.  

Endorsing Politicians & Speaking In a Personal Capacity

The primary ways in which the Johnson Amendment reshapes churches’ political engagement is by limiting what churches can say about a particular political party or candidate—not political issues themselves. For example, a church may openly teach about safeguarding life at all stages of development or the importance of affirming biological reality.  

These issues, after all, are matters of particular concern to the church. And even in issues that are not explicitly biblical—immigration, foreign policy, the economy—church leaders maintain the constitutional freedom to speak their minds and convictions on these issues.

The problems presented by the Johnson Amendment arise when pastors begin to openly endorse or oppose candidates or parties. While using your pastoral position to support or oppose a candidate or party is not a criminal offense, it could be putting your church’s tax-exempt status in jeopardy.

Church leaders, however, may speak politically in their personal capacities. The best way to ensure that whoever you are talking with understands you are speaking from your personal capacity is to indicate clearly that your comments are personal and are not intended to represent the church.  

Hosting Candidates at Your Church

The Johnson Amendment also influences the ways churches interact with political candidates and educate their congregations about them.  

When churches host candidates, it is important to provide all candidates with an equal opportunity to participate. Inviting one candidate to speak at a well-attended Sunday service and the opposing candidate to speak at a sparsely attended general meeting will likely be found to violate the Johnson Amendment, even if the presentation of both speakers is otherwise neutral.

If you invite someone to speak at your church in their capacity as a candidate for office, the IRS may look at relevant factors and circumstances to determine whether the invitation is considered participation or intervention in a political campaign.  

Navigate Political Engagement with Confidence

The Johnson Amendment has generated much uncertainty about the extent to which churches may be involved in the political process. It is unfortunate, and frankly, it is unconstitutional. Nevertheless, it remains the law.  

When you become a member of the ADF Church & Ministry Alliance, you'll gain access to further resources and the opportunity to consult with religious liberty attorneys who help you navigate how laws like the Johnson Amendment affect your ministry’s mission.  

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How the Johnson Amendment Affects Churches

During his run for a second term in office, President Lincoln sought political support for his re-election from an institution that was otherwise...