Churches generally use the donations they collect from their congregations to cover basic operating expenses—things like paying church staff, building maintenance, and community outreach. But if a rider attached to a must-pass bill being deliberated in Congress goes through, your weekly offering could be used to pay for a political attack ad.
Attached to the House version of the appropriation bill is a provision that would repeal the Johnson Amendment, a section of federal tax law that limits the ability of tax-exempt religious organizations to engage in politics. If the Johnson Amendment is repealed, churches and other 501(c)(3) non-profits will be free to endorse political candidates, as well as raise and spend unlimited amounts of money on politicians’ behalf without having to disclose the identity of their donors. The Joint Committee on Taxation estimates that repeal could lead to donors diverting as much as $1.7 billion from PACs to churches to funnel into our elections.
This would create a new campaign finance loophole that could be exploited by anyone seeking to spend political money anonymously.
Unlike just about every other kind of non-profit, churches don’t have to file 990s with the IRS. Even political dark money 501(c)(4) non-profits like Crossroads GPS and Patriot Majority USA have to file 990s that make some information about their fundraising and spending publicly available (albeit not with enough granularity to reliably trace the money back to its source). Without 990s, churches could give political donors more anonymity than any other type of organization.
Furthermore, unlike every other form of political giving, donations to churches and religious groups are tax-deductible. That means that in addition to the unparalleled level of secrecy they would get, political donors would have a major financial incentive to funnel their contributions through religious groups.
Americans don’t want churches engaging in politics.
According to public polling data, 79 percent of Americans want to keep the Johnson Amendment intact to prevent churches from engaging in political campaigning. Even a majority of white evangelical protestants, a demographic that voted overwhelmingly for Trump, oppose exempting churches from the Johnson Amendment, the polling found.
So why is Congress pursuing this?
Big money has more influence in the government than ever before, and Congress would be doing major donors a huge favor by creating a new tax-deductible loophole they could use to secretly funnel money into politics. The billionaires that play an increasingly large role in funding elections could directly benefit from a repeal of the Johnson Amendment, and the politicians that make that possible could see payback in the form of funds for their reelection.