Texas Politics Blamed for '54 IRS Rule: LBJ Wanted to Keep Senate Seat

Article excerpt

The IRS rule that strips tax exemption from churches engaged in electioneering was born of Lyndon Johnson's Texas politics, not the U.S. Constitution, according to a study.

As a Senate member in 1954, Mr. Johnson pushed through the tax statute to cripple two conservative groups challenging his seat and control of the Democratic Party in Texas, James Davidson writes in the forthcoming quarterly Review of Religious Research.

"The ban on [church] electioneering has nothing to do with the First Amendment or Jeffersonian principles of separation of church and state," writes Mr. Davidson, a Purdue University sociologist. "It was prompted by Johnson's desire to challenge McCarthyism, protect the liberal wing of the Democratic Party in Texas, and win re-election."

Mr. Johnson accomplished those aims and in late 1954 led the congressional censure of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, Wisconsin Republican.

Since 1954, the Internal Revenue Service has barred 501(c)3, or nonprofit, groups from participating in "any political campaign on behalf of any candidate."

Mr. Johnson submitted the amendment four months before Election Day in hopes of crippling two nonprofit anti-communist groups allied with conservative Democrats in Texas.

"It is something that is a little-known fact," Mr. Davidson said in an interview. "When I talk to clergy or church leaders, they usually think the ban has something to do with the First Amendment."

The First Amendment says government may not establish religion, but until 1954 the nation's churches could be tax-exempt and partisan.

The irony, Mr. Davidson said, is that an expedient in Texas party politics during the McCarthy era ended up shaping church life in America. "Johnson wasn't focused on churches or religions at all," he said.

The two groups Mr. Johnson tried to blunt were Facts Forum, founded by millionaire H.L. Hunt, and the Committee for Constitutional Government, started by press baron Frank E. Gannett.

"Johnson clearly was concerned about Facts Forum and its role in the 1954 election," the new study says. The forum ended along with Mr. McCarthy's crusade, and the committee petered out.

Mr. Davidson said most clergy avoid partisan politics because it divides congregations, whatever the IRS rules. …