The rule is named for then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson, D-Texas, who proposed the idea that Congress passed and Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed. It was, at the time, not considered controversial.
The idea was, and is, that any organization that is subsidized by tax-free status shifting onto others the burden of paying for schools and roads and defense should not be able to take that advantage into the political realm by endorsing or opposing candidates for political office.
The law keeps no one from speaking out on moral, social and political issues. It doesn't even stop anyone from endorsing or opposing candidates, though it doesn't allow them to keep their tax break if they choose to go there. So the claim of some religious leaders, mostly on the conservative side, that the rule violates their First Amendment rights to free speech and religion is not grounded in fact.
Contributions to campaigns, by individuals or corporations, are not tax-deductible. So if it were possible to make tax-deductible gifts to churches and other non-profits, right and left and for those groups to turn around and use that money to support or oppose candidates for public office, then those organizations would suddenly become a legalized conduit of dark money that donors large and small could funnel to campaigns.
Is that really what American churches want to be known for?
The fact is that membership in organized religion is falling in the United States, especially among members of the millennial generation. And the perception among younger adults that churches are already too political is a leading reason for that abandonment.
There is no question that the LDS Church has a great deal of pull in Utah voting booths and in the Legislature, especially on what it considers moral questions such as alcohol policy and what it sees as matters of religious freedom and the welfare of families. But it also sticks to its own rule against endorsing candidates and generally treads carefully in the political sphere.
The church also knows that it burned its fingers badly when it supported California's Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot measure that banned same-sex marriage in that state. The backlash did serious damage to the church's reputation, there and across the nation. It has caused more than a few people to wonder if the LDS Church, or churches in general, really deserve their tax-free status. It also set off the political storm that soon led to the approval of marriage equality nationwide.
A call from the president for churches to become more overtly politically active, up to and including the endorsement of political candidates, might seem like a gift to some faith groups.
It wouldn't be. And the churches should be the first to see that.