Why Nonprofits and Churches Aren’t Clamoring to Endorse Candidates

President Trump is making the case that religious organizations should be free to engage in politics, by calling for repealing the Johnson Amendment. Nonprofits also fall under this IRS code provision.

501(c)3 nonprofit leaders have a general sense of the constraints on their ability to engage in political activity although the laws and their interpretation have never been that clear. Here’s the Washington Post story and an AP story explaining the Johnson amendment and why Trump is making this an issue. The law prohibits tax-exempt charitable organizations from participating directly or indirectly in any political campaign to support or oppose a candidate. They can't donate to campaigns or endorse candidates.

While Trump is setting this up as a freedom of religion or speech issue on behalf of his religious allies, such a change would have significant consequences for nonprofits and religious organizations. Without attempting to litigate either freedom of speech and religion or separation of church and state, there are plenty of good reasons to resist this change. Associations and nonprofits have benefited from constraints placed on their political activity.

A focus on policy rather than politics ensures nonprofits do not lose sight of their mission and priorities in favor of the ups and downs of any political party. Moreover, direct engagement in politics would be disruptive to internal harmony. It is difficult enough to create substantive policy positions within diverse organizations without also tying them to the positions of specific candidates in either major political party.

For associations, establishing PACs offers a way to segregate and channel money explicitly for political candidates. This makes it possible for people to be members and buy into the association’s work while making a separate decision about spending their money to support candidates willing to back the association’s policy priorities. It’s an important and healthy distinction, and this separation of functions helps reinforce that associations aren’t buying everything a politician is selling.  

Truthfully most churches would not welcome being politicized to this degree either. I am active in a deliberately nonpartisan, highly activist community organization. There is political power in taking a radically independent stand. One might argue in these polarized times that there is even integrity in keeping our eyes focused on our vision for what we want to see in the world.

These are fascinating times for associations. On multiple fronts they are being tested to clarify what they truly believe and are willing to advocate at considerably more hazard than at any time in my adult lifetime.