It is beginning to look like a big week for the Christian right in Washington. On Tuesday night President Trump gave them the SCOTUS nominee most of them wanted, in Neil Gorsuch. Then word got out that the administration had drafted a sweeping executive order on “religious liberty” that could have been drafted by Jerry Falwell Jr. And then on Thursday morning, at the National Prayer Breakfast (itself an annual ritual of presidential deference to conservative Christians), Trump repeated a campaign promise to repeal the so-called Johnson Amendment, a 1954 law preventing open electioneering by tax-exempt nonprofit organizations. Actually, the term he used was not “repeal,” but “totally destroy.” Very presidential of him.
What this would mean in practice is that people employed by religious bodies (and other kinds of nonprofit organizations), most especially ministers of the Christian Gospel, could endorse and exhort support for special candidates and other matters decided at the ballot box right there in the pulpit — or perhaps more importantly, through utilization of church resources (signs, flyers, phone and email lists, and presumably even paid ads). It would save the time and trouble involved in the winking and nodding that often goes on with clerical politicking. But less innocently, the proposed new policy might also pave the way to coerced electioneering statements imposed on individual ministers and congregations by denominational leaders. It would definitely politicize the Sabbath in a big way.
Trump, of course, tries to make this sound like a simple matter of freedom, daring to cite as an authority the predecessor for whom separation of church and state was a first principle:
Jefferson asked, ‘”Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?”Among those freedoms is the right to worship according to our own beliefs. That is why I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution — I will do that.
Put aside for a moment the fact that religious groups violating the Johnson Amendment practically have to hit the IRS over the head with their views to attract the rare investigation or enforcement action. Even if it were regularly enforced, nothing in the Johnson Amendment keeps anyone from worshiping as they wish; “representatives of faith” could have devoted every 2016 sermon to demanding votes for Donald Trump or excoriating the baby-killing devil-woman Hillary Clinton if they wanted. They just cannot at the same time accept taxpayer subsidies.
That is the real misunderstanding here. Groups demanding the freedom to say and do whatever they want, and/or to violate anti-discrimination laws in the name of God, seem to view tax-exempt status as quite literally a matter of divine entitlement. But it’s a very secular thing conveying crass, material benefits in great abundance. Not only does church property (and some forms of church employee compensation) escape taxation: The dollars placed in the collection plate convey a tax benefit to the contributors. All told, the value of the tax exemptions for churches has been estimated in one recent study as amounting to $71 billion annually. That’s certainly enough to justify a bit of self-control in playing with electoral politics.
Since the Johnson Amendment is a matter of statutory law (enacted, as it happens, by a Republican-controlled Congress and signed by a Republican president), not executive-branch policy, Trump cannot “get rid of and totally destroy it” by fiat. But because it involves the tax code, congressional Republicans can almost certainly nestle a Johnson Amendment repeal into one of the two “budget reconciliation” bills on tap this year — perhaps the first one, mainly aimed at whatever the GOP decides to do with Obamacare, which will supposedly be unveiled this month or next. Such a bill cannot be filibustered by Senate Democrats, and given everything else that will be going on, a big juicy treat for the Christian right will probably get through without the kind of attention it deserves. And Thomas Jefferson will roll in his grave.