During the National Prayer Breakfast this morning, Donald Trump reiterated his desire to repeal the Johnson Amendment, which would then allow pastors to promote political candidates from the pulpit.
Right now, pastors who tell their congregation to vote for a particular candidate risk losing their tax-exempt status — though that almost never happens in practice. But if Trump gets his way, pastors would get to play politics without paying taxes. (The clip begins at the 1:40:00 mark.)
It was the great Thomas Jefferson who said, “The God who gave us life gave us liberty.” 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. Remember.
Ummm… Christians already have the right to worship according to their own beliefs. The tax code doesn’t have to change for that to continue. As with many of Trump’s speeches, one idea doesn’t flow from the previous one. It’s all stream of consciousness.
Neither of Jefferson’s quotations, by the way, had anything to do with preventing pastors from worshiping freely.
As we’ve said before, repealing the Johnson Amendment would be a horrible idea — not just for our society, but for the church, too. Religious organizations already have the luxury of not paying taxes, and one of the requirements of that perk (just as with all non=profits) is that they don’t get to endorse candidates for political office. They can speak out against marriage equality, abortion, sex education, evolution, etc. all they want… but pastors can’t tell their congregations, “Jesus wants you to vote for the Republican, so go do it.”
If the Amendment did get repealed, and churches became political arenas, it’s hard to think some churches would ever do anything but promote candidates. Every service would become an in-person political ad. I doubt that’s the game pastors want to play since they see their calling as being above petty politics.
Pastors could easily give up their tax exemptions and start directing people to the polls. There’s a reason they don’t do that. But conservative Christians want it both ways and Trump wants to give it to them.
If the man had the ability to think through the consequences of his actions, he’d realize what a disaster it would be.
***Update***: The Secular Coalition for America’s Executive Director Larry Decker has weighed in:
“Today at the National Prayer Breakfast, President Trump pledged to ‘destroy’ a pillar of American democracy which has preserved the integrity of our political system for more than 60 years. Contrary to the president’s remarks, the Johnson Amendment does not stifle the free expression of America’s churches but helps hold them accountable to both the American taxpayer and their own congregations. Religious nonprofits already enjoy the hyper-privileged status of being exempt from both taxes and financial disclosure. The repeal of the Johnson Amendment would unleash a new wave of dark money into the political system, effectively transforming houses of worship into the equivalent of religious Super PACS. Americans of every faith and none must rally to defend this crucial piece of the wall of separation between church and state.”