Since 1954, the Johnson Amendment has prohibited religious leaders from supporting or opposing political candidates. The GOP tax bill approved in the House might change that.

But the biggest opponents of repealing the Johnson Amendment are the mainstream media, which tend to write about the ban as if it were part of the original Bill of Rights. The editors of the Washington Post warned that allowing pastors to speak out for or against political candidates “would permit churches, charities and foundations to engage in candidate-specific politicking and enable donors to reap tax breaks for political contributions for the first time.” The House bill, they say, would throw open “an entirely new channel for campaign money to politicize churches, charities and foundations.”

The First Amendment seems to cover this on several fronts. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Consider this background from The Federalist:

The original purpose of the Johnson Amendment wasn’t to prevent pastors from speaking out about politics from the pulpit, it was to ensure LBJ’s reelection to the U.S. Senate. After stealing his first Senate election through ballot fraud—he won by 87 votes in the 1948 Democratic runoff primary against a former Texas governor, Coke Stevenson—Johnson wanted to ensure that he handily won reelection in 1954.

In those days, Democrats dominated state politics in Texas, so winning reelection meant winning the Democratic primary. In 1954, Johnson’s primary challenger was a 30-year-old freshman state representative named Dudley Dougherty. But Dougherty, a relative nobody, wasn’t the problem. The problem was McCarthyism.

This was during the height of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s hearings and speeches about the growing threat of communism, and although Johnson had little use for McCarthy—he called him a “loudmouthed drunk” who “can’t tie his g-dd-mn shoes”—he couldn’t afford to alienate major Texas donors, mostly oilmen, who hated communism and loved McCarthy. So he muted his criticism of McCarthy along with his general view that Americans’ fear of communism was overblown.

That worked on most of the Texas oilmen, but it didn’t work on H.L. Hunt, a billionaire businessman from Dallas who started a tax-exempt foundation called Facts Forum to promote his conservative, anti-Communist views through radio, television, and the publication of books and magazines. Another group called Committee for Constitutional Government, founded by the newspaper magnate Frank Gannett, was also pumping out anti-Communist material during this time, and Johnson suspected such tax-exempt organizations were quietly supporting his primary opponent, Dougherty.

This of course incensed Johnson, and he decided to do something about it on the floor of the Senate by offering a short amendment to the IRS code for regulating 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations. At the time, he said the amendment “seeks to extend the provisions of section 501 of the House bill, denying tax-exempt status to not only those people who influence legislation but also to those who intervene in any political campaign on behalf of any candidate for any public office.” There was no debate on the amendment and it was accepted on unanimous consent. 

Johnson goal was to undermine support for a political rival, not re-shape church-state relations. He likely could not have predicted—and would not have supported—the long-term ramifications. As Stephen Mansfield has noted, Johnson “does not seem to have had religion particularly in view. It doesn’t matter. Johnson’s amendment to the IRS code pertaining to 501(c)(3) organizations has meant that every tax-exempt church and ministry in America is kept from endorsing candidates or specific legislation if it would keep its tax-exempt status.”