The Art of the Hook

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Even the most profound advocacy message is irrelevant if no one reads it. And many of the great works of thought and art have profound and memorable openings. “We hold these Truths to be self-evident,” is the hook that impels readers – from King George III of England to town criers across the new nation to read the Declaration of Independence. Who doesn’t remember, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times ...”? (A Tale of Two Cities, C. Dickens) Or, “I am an invisible man.” (Invisible Man, R. Ellison)

In the past few weeks, journalists, religious leaders, and nonprofit advocates have expressed powerful views about the need to preserve the longstanding tax law – the Johnson Amendment – that protects charitable nonprofits, houses of worship, and foundations from divisive partisanship, enabling them to focus on mission instead of politics. The most memorable messages have opened with hooks that got them noticed. Here is a sampling:

“One of President Trump's favorite bad ideas — making it easier for churches to endorse political candidates — is back. Among several so-called policy riders that Republicans hope to smuggle into an omnibus spending bill is a measure that would weaken the Johnson Amendment, which has been part of the Internal Revenue Code for more than 60 years.”

In writing that opening paragraph, the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times, summarized the problem (politicizing houses of worship), identified the urgency of the threat (anti-Johnson Amendment rider potentially on the impending spending bill), and made clear its view (bad idea). The whole editorial, Don't weaken the ban on politics in the pulpit, March 6, 2018, is a must read for all who cherish the work of charitable, religious, and philanthropic organizations.

“PURPLE IS THE liturgical color for Lent. ‘Purple’ is also the political identity of America’s houses of worship. We are a mixture of Republicans, Democrats, and independents who come together for worship, fellowship, and service. No political party owns religious truth.”

Those opening lines draw readers into this powerful article, Keep Our Churches PurpleSojourners Magazine, March 13, 2018, by the newly ordained minister, Rev. Jennifer Hawks, who also serves as associate general counsel at the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.

“They're Back! Special Interests Want to Destroy Nonprofit Nonpartisanship.”

Utah GraphicOkay, technically that’s the title of an action alert from the Utah Nonprofits Association, but it’s a hook nonetheless that deserves recognition. The March 6, 2018 alert explains, “Last year the White House and some well-funded special interests came dangerously close to repealing the longstanding law that protects nonprofit nonpartisanship, the Johnson Amendment. They are back.”  A follow-up alert is titled: “LAWMAKERS ARE USING YOUR NONPROFIT'S INTEGRITY AS A BARGAINING CHIP.” The explanation of the typestyle? “Yes, we know that all caps means that we are shouting. We are shouting because nonprofit reputations are under attack and we need to be heard.” Points made.

“There’s a core American belief that just about everyone agrees with regardless of political stripes: People employed to serve the public good should not, in their official capacity, endorse or oppose candidates for public office.”

That’s the opening to an article in The Hill by Tim Delaney, President and CEO of the National Council of Nonprofits, entitled Setting the record straight on charities and political speech. In it, Delaney uses the Kellyanne Conway / Hatch Act news to show that everyone – from the White House to preachers in their pulpits – knows where the line is drawn between lawfully speaking about policy issues and unlawfully endorsing candidates for public office.

And while this is an article about powerful opening lines, Delaney’s conclusion is worth noting: “As Congress is racing to complete the omnibus spending bill before Passover and Easter, well-funded special interests and powerful politicians are seeking to attach an anti-Johnson Amendment rider under the guise of ‘free speech.’ In truth, their proposal would amount to forcing taxpayers to subsidize the political speech of others. All taxpayers, and particularly all charitable organizations, will suffer the consequences of politicians once again putting their own priorities above the interests of the people they serve.”


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