Keep the Johnson Amendment

By Ken Reynolds

In his talk to religious leaders at the National Prayer breakfast in February, the president vowed “to destroy” the Johnson Amendment. His vow is not a surprise. The 2016 Republican Platform supports repeal. A bill to change the law has been introduced in the House.
If you are among those who attend church in hope of solace and to worship among people of like beliefs, you may want to consider carefully what the president is vowing to destroy. Repeal has potential impact on every tax-exempt organization, including churches, charities and service clubs.

The party platform characterizes the amendment as an infringement upon the free speech right of churches to participate fully in the political process. That is a legal argument properly addressed by a person more qualified than I.

The amendment addresses tax exempt organizations, not individuals. Religious leaders and laymen often express political views in church and in the press. The amendment does not prohibit organizations from supporting or opposing a cause or a specific law or regulation. It prohibits supporting or opposing a candidate.

The Johnson Amendment became a part of the federal tax code in 1954. The IRS website summarizes the prohibition: . . . all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.

As in almost all historical events, there is debate about origins of the law. Some details, however, are clear. The roots of the amendment date to a 1930 federal court decision. The ruling became a part of the tax code in 1934, but it included the ill-defined, and challengeable phrase “no substantial part.”

After World War II, especially in the late 40s and 50s, political contests were highly contentious and fraught with fear of communism’s influence and its infiltration of our government. Senator Lyndon Johnson, for whom the amendment is named, believed certain not-for-profit organization(s) supporting the far right, were a significant force of opposition to him.

There is debate as to whether Johnson intended the amendment to apply to churches. That question, also, is better left to legal scholars to argue. Intent rarely changes the impact of an action on reality.

My concern is the potential negative impact repeal will have within and upon organizations registered as tax exempt. The list is far too long to include here, but I venture if you are reading this column you are a member, volunteer and/or supporter of a church, service club or charity.

The reality of political views is that they tend to be deeply held, and challenges to them can be threatening and highly divisive. Immeasurable bloodshed has resulted from such differences.

If any conviction is more basic and emotional than politics, it is religion. Churches are founded and organized upon and around intensely held beliefs. The differences between, and within, religions are not a small matter. Even within an individual congregation, different views cause tension and discord.

Twice, and I am grateful that is has been only twice, I have witnessed congregations being torn apart by differences of belief in what the church should or should not be doing. They were not pleasant experiences. For many members, the rifts never healed. With all my heart, I hope I never again see anyone, particularly my friends, go through a similar experience.

Americans, including pastors, have a right to express political beliefs. We have the right to assemble and jointly express those views and to try to persuade others. In recent years, it has become almost impossible to escape hearing political views touted or attacked, except in the privacy of our homes.

Churches, charities and service clubs that are not permitted to be political may be our last sanctuaries. We should treasure them. Knowingly creating a path to the probability of a rupture within a group joined by belief and a common purpose is courting destruction of more than an amendment to a tax law.

Few political moves are as simple as they first appear. Repeal of the Johnson Amendment will presage a major shift in political contributions from parties and individuals to tax exempt entities. Follow the money. Why make a taxable contribution to a candidate if you can make a tax-deductible donation to a church or charity that backs your candidate? The question is particularly relevant if the donor is in the higher tax brackets.

The Free Speech Fairness Act (H. R. 6195) was introduced in September 2016: “To amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to allow charitable organizations to make statements relating to political campaigns if such statements are made in the ordinary course of carrying out its tax exempt purpose.”

The bill sponsors included a provision that the statements do not result “. . . in the organization incurring not more than de minimis incremental expenses.”

If, H. R. 6195 becomes law, it may or may not, alleviate concerns about the flow of money through churches and charities to politicians. However, it does not lessen my concerns about divisiveness. It does the opposite.

I hope we have not become so enamored of politics that we want our church or favorite charity to become a political club, or worse, a front for politicians. Why would we?

Photo credit: Roadside church and cemetery, Old US Route 22, Greenwich Township, Berks County. Photo by Nicholas A. Tonelli via Flickr

2nd American Revolution

By Ken Reynolds

a review of The Quartet by Joseph Ellisbook cover the quartet ellis web

The Quartet is remarkably clear and smooth reading history. In only 220 pages (plus notes and appended documents), Ellis explains how four men took the initiative to transition thirteen sovereign countries into a nation united by one government. He gives his reader a flavor of the conflict of opinions and the politics by focusing our attention on the desires and machinations of his quartet.

In The Quartet, Joseph J. Ellis vividly explains how four men, convinced that government by The Articles of Confederation would fail to protect America from incursion and subjugation by the powerful seafaring nations of the world, lead the political effort that resulted in The Constitution of the United States of America. Those men were George Washington, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay. Continue reading

Why Go To Houston In July?

by Marty & Ken Reynolds

Newly transplanted, eight year old Katie at swim practice.

Newly transplanted, eight year old Katie at swim practice.

Who would want to leave the cool mountains of North Georgia to spend a hot July week in Houston?

Had it not been that our daughter, a kidney transplant recipient, was competing in the Donate Life Transplant Games of America we would have stayed here. But parental love prevailed, and we braved the mid-summer heat in Texas.

In 1982, our eight-year-old daughter, Katie, swam in a meet in Richmond, Virginia. As she got set to dive into the pool, faces turned toward her. We heard voices murmuring, “That’s the little girl who had the kidney transplant this winter!” Continue reading

Candice Millard writes thrilling and chilling history

by Ken Reynolds

Author Candice Millard earned a place on my book shelves with two fascinating books about American presidents. The first, River of Doubt, is an incredible journey down an uncharted tributary of the Amazon River with Theodore Roosevelt. The second, Destiny of the Republic, is a more intricate tale of the brief presidency and early death of James A. Garfield.

Millard’s books read like novels. They are good examples of historical writing that cause readers to say, I wish history had been written like this when I was in school. Continue reading

Playing solitaire till dawn with a deck of fifty-one

by Ken Reynolds

Playing video games makes it easy to accomplish nothing, but playing them is still doing something. I try to resist video games, because time ceases to matter and inevitably I regret wasting it on an unrewarding activity. A few nights ago while I was engrossed in a session of computer solitaire Lew Dewitt and The Statler Brothers popped into my mind.

In the mid to late 1960s Statler was one of the most well-known names around Staunton and Waynesboro, Virginia. Not because a lot of people were named Statler. There may have been none, but it was difficult to find anyone in our part of the Shenandoah Valley who did not claim to be a personal friend of at least one member of the Grammy Award winning Statler Brothers quartet. The claims may have been true. The singers were extraordinarily popular and exceptionally civic minded and reputedly were friendly and outgoing fellows. However, only two of them were brothers and none were named Statler. They chose the name from a tissue box in a hotel room. Continue reading

Thirteen American Arguments

Howard Fineman’s The Thirteen American Arguments

Review by Ken ReynoldsTurned Pages
Do Americans have an innate national need to argue? Howard Fineman, author of The Thirteen American Arguments: Enduring Debates That Define and Inspire Our Country, says we do. Fineman contends the founder’s design of our government left it to be refined and improved through an endless series of arguments. He believes voicing our differences sustains our national identity and makes us an ever-renewing nation.

Whether the national design was deliberate, or an inevitable result of the need to meld thirteen separate and disparate governments into one nation, he leaves for academics to debate. Fineman bases his premise on more than thirty years of observing, reporting and commenting on national politics. He says there are issues that, under our form of government, will not be resolved. Continue reading

Something Like a Walk

by Ken Reynolds

 When we moved to these mountains fifteen years ago we were newly retired and we both liked to hike. North Georgia had more trails than I could have walked even if the trail system had not grown longer every year and those same years had not wrought havoc on my ability to go up and down hill. I was a lot younger then. Martha has not aged.

Our dog often accompanied us on short walks and long hikes. But he also has gotten older and the years have taken a toll his ability to cover the distances we once did. Twice each day he demands an opportunity to sniff over what he sniffed over the last time he was outside, so we spend a lot of time in a small area. Whatever I once might have labeled our outings I can no longer call them hikes, or even long walks. I don’t hike anymore and I miss it.

There has been a lot of rain this year. Rainy days, achy knees and stiff fingers remind me how old I really am. Four rainy days in a row made getting out of bed this morning particularly difficult. But beyond our bedroom window sunlight beckoned, so I struggled to get myself upright, went through what Martha calls my pre-amble, then hobbled into the bathroom. Continue reading