sealPurdue News

October 18, 1996

Expert: Churches muddy the ban on political activity

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Members of the religious right seem to be pushing the envelope on political activity, testing a confusing ban on churches participating in partisan politics, notes a Purdue University expert on religion and society.

Recent political efforts by Christians include the activities of the Christian Coalition, which has vowed to do all it can to defeat President Bill Clinton in the upcoming election. Their efforts have included mailing out 45 million "voter guides" nationwide. At the grassroots level, Christians are working to elect church members to local school boards and offices.

"Many people mistakenly believe that the Constitutional provision for separation of church and state prohibits churches from being active in partisan politics," says James D. Davidson, professor of sociology. "That's not the case, rather the ban stems from a little-known tax-reform amendment introduced by Lyndon Johnson in 1954."

That was the era of McCarthyism. Johnson, then a Democratic senator up for re-election in Texas, sponsored an amendment to a tax reform bill that prohibited tax-exempt organizations from participating in or intervening in political campaigns. Davidson says Johnson's goal at the time appears to have been to thwart a conservative, tax-exempt Texas foundation, Facts Forum. That group had become a key source of information for "Red Scare" activists and a source of support for right-wing candidates.

"Johnson was not trying to address any Constitutional issue, nor did he offer the amendment because of anything that churches had done," Davidson says. "There was no discussion of the amendment on the floor prior to passage, so we don't know whether any of the senators had any idea of the far-reaching affects it would have on churches."

Davidson says that since the early 1980s, there has been a surge in political activity among Christians, particularly among evangelical Christians. As a result, lawsuits have been filed challenging the legality of such activity. In one case, the Federal Election Commission has filed suit against the Christian Coalition, claiming it should register as a political action committee, which would take away its tax-exempt status. In another instance, the Internal Revenue Service has a suit filed against the Second Baptist Church of Houston and its voter education program.

"It's anybody's guess as to how these cases will turn out," Davidson says. "But it's important to know that the legality of the matter has nothing to do with religion. It's the tax-exempt status of these organizations that brings their political activity into question."

Source: James Davidson, (765) 494-4688
Writer: Beth Forbes, (765) 494-9723; e-mail;
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

* To the Purdue News and Photos Page