The Mostly Symbolic Amendment Allowing Churches to Get Political Is Gone From the GOP Tax Bill

Under a provision struck from the GOP tax bill, churches and other nonprofits could have openly engaged in campaign activity. Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images

It won’t matter one bit to the kind of Republican whose gospel is the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal. But to the Christian right, which has already had a bad week with the defeat of its favorite theocrat, Roy Moore, it’s a big deal:

The Senate parliamentarian has blocked language repealing the Johnson Amendment and allowing churches and 501(c)3 nonprofits to endorse candidates and engage in partisan politics from inclusion in the tax bill.

It’s kind of fitting, if you think about it. Repeal of the Johnson Amendment (which was in the House but not the Senate version of the tax bill, and thus hadn’t been reviewed by the Senate parliamentarian until now) is ideological fool’s gold because the IRS never bothers to enforce it. As a result, repealing it has no budgetary impact, and thus it’s not germane to a tax bill being enacted under special budget rules.

But purely symbolic as it is, the repeal measure was considered a key campaign promise from Donald Trump to conservative Evangelicals. So there will be some whining from those circles, probably aimed at the shadowy elitist Elizabeth MacDonough, the parliamentarian. And this item could wind up being attached to some other must-pass legislation in the immediate future, such as the big spending measure expected to be negotiated in January.

This isn’t all a tempest in a teapot, however. Even though the Johnson Amendment hasn’t really been much of a problem for politically motivated clergy (as the very existence of the Christian right as a powerful constituency group shows), repealing it might have led to houses of worship and other nonprofits being suborned into serving as tax-subsidized conduits for dark-money campaign contributions. Indeed, you could imagine a whole cottage industry of bogus churches and foundations being set up for the entire purpose of giving billionaires a tax write-off for anonymously contributing to their favorite candidates for office.

So anyone who thinks the campaign financing system is porous enough as it is, or who would like to insulate religious institutions from political corruption, should say a quick prayer of thanks for Elizabeth MacDonough.

Item Allowing Churches to Get Political Gone From Tax Bill