This month, the nonprofit sector narrowly escaped a potential nightmare. A small group of policymakers failed in their second attempt to destroy the Johnson Amendment, a 64-year-old law that protects charitable organizations from partisan political pressure. It was almost a real-life horror story, and while the threat of a Johnson Amendment repeal is no longer imminent, it’s not gone. So, for fun, we looked to scary movies and TV shows for some lessons on facing our fears. Here are some pointers we took away from the horror canon as we continue to fend off the frightening prospect of a Johnson Amendment repeal.
Lesson 1: Small Actions Create Monstrous Problems
Many scary stories begin with an innocent action triggering a tragic chain of events that unleashes a monstrous creature onto unsuspecting citizens. Often, they also begin with a set of rules, like how to feed your pets (Gremlins, Stranger Things) or plants (Little Shop of Horrors). Unfortunately, someone disregards those rules, and unintentionally creates monsters that cannot be contained.
Over the past year, some members of Congress risked creating a similar monster by removing the one barrier keeping the D.C. swamp out of our communities. Policymakers pushing to repeal the Johnson Amendment assert that they are proposing a small policy change that wouldn’t impact that many charitable organizations. But the reality is that this innocuous-sounding change would wreak havoc on nonprofits and demolish the last nonpartisan spaces in civil society. Rather than draining the D.C. swamp, Congress would be helping it grow and mutate into the Swamp Monster.
Under its reign, politicians, board members, and donors would be able to pressure charities to use their trusted voices and resources to support political campaigns. Houses of worship would be saddled with burdensome new reporting and concerns about the IRS examining their financial records. All of the sudden, Sunday worship services, Santas ringing bells, girls selling cookies, and families working in soup kitchens would be divided along party lines. Our missions and our universe would be turned “upside down,” a la Stranger Things.
Last year, rumbles of a potential Johnson Amendment repeal began to creep into the nonprofit sector. Congress first attempted to weaken the law by including a provision in the first version of the House-passed tax reform bill. Policymakers considered weakening the law a second time in the final hours of drafting a 2018 spending bill. We must help them understand that, like the upshot in many horror movie plots, this seemingly small action could inadvertently create the Swamp Monster that will run amok in our communities.
Lesson 2: You Can Save the Day
Typically, the heroes and heroines of scary movies are average citizens that band together to defeat the monster. Similarly, as fears of the Swamp Monster grew, the sector collectively sprung to action.
Over 10,000 advocates came out in force and told their members of Congress how important the Johnson Amendment was to the core of their missions, and to the populations they serve. They made it clear that their organizations don’t want to be mired in partisan muck. Nonprofit leaders, front-line staff, donors, and volunteers worked together to prevent the Swamp Monster from becoming a reality…this time.
Lesson 3: Never Assume the Swamp Monster is Dead
A classic mistake of scary movie protagonists is prematurely assuming that the monster is dead. In fact, it is quietly waiting to return stronger and more terrifying in subsequent films/seasons. We cannot afford to make this same mistake with the Swamp Monster.
The passage of last week’s spending bill without a Johnson Amendment repeal allows nonprofits to once again go to sleep each night with the comfort of knowing the Swamp Monster had slithered out of their communities, and retreated to the Capitol.
Or has it?
While nonprofits did amazing work protecting the Johnson Amendment over the past year, we know a few policymakers may already be planning a trilogy. So, we need to be on the lookout and ready at a moments’ notice to fend off the Swamp Monster, whose shadow still looms over our communities. Stay vigilant and ready to take action.