Donald Trump’s Executive Order Weakening the Johnson Amendment Isn’t As Devastating As We Thought

There’s a rule when it comes to Donald Trump that the entire media should understand: Don’t go crazy covering what he says. Pay attention to what he actually does.

Earlier today, Donald Trump signed an executive order that supposedly weakened the Johnson Amendment. While Congress would have to pass legislation for a full repeal, Trump’s order supposedly told the IRS to back off from any churches whose pastors endorsed a candidate from the pulpit. It wasn’t a hard and fast rule, but it was a strong suggestion.

And that’s what Trump talked about this morning:

TrumpJohnsonEO

The order, which Trump inked during a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden, directs the IRS to exercise “maximum enforcement discretion” over the Johnson amendment, which prevents churches and other tax-exempt religious organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates…

“We will not allow people of faith to be targeted, bullied or silenced anymore,” Trump proclaimed during his remarks, which were marking the National Day of Prayer. “And we will never, ever stand for religious discrimination. Never, ever.”

Setting aside the whole bit about people of faith being silenced — they never have been — Trump made clear that the reports of the executive order were accurate. He was going to tell the IRS that it was okay to not go after churches that violated the rules of their tax exemptions.

The actual executive order is a mouthful, but here’s the relevant portion of it:

… In particular, the Secretary of the Treasury shall ensure, to the extent permitted by law, that the Department of the Treasury does not take any adverse action against any individual, house of worship, or other religious organization on the basis that such individual or organization speaks or has spoken about moral or political issues from a religious perspective, where speech of similar character has, consistent with law, not ordinarily been treated as participation or intervention in a political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) a candidate for public office by the Department of the Treasury.

Okay, so the IRS shouldn’t penalize churches that speak about moral or political issues from a religious perspective… but the IRS wasn’t doing that anyway. In most cases, like when pastors talked about homosexuality or abortion, church/state separation advocates didn’t even care from a legal standpoint. And when it comes to outright politicking from the pulpit by telling people how to vote, atheists had to take the IRS to court to get them to say they would even think about revoking their tax exemptions. (Since then, no church has been punished for endorsing a candidate.)

This order merely said, “IRS, keep doing what you’re doing.”

For that reason, some religious conservatives aren’t celebrating anything, as the Atlantic points out:

On Twitter, the National Review columnist David French called the order “total weaksauce” and a “sop to the gullible.” Russell Moore, the head of the public-policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, told me in a message on Thursday morning that “I am hoping that the draft we are seeing this morning is not the entire project, and that more will be forthcoming.” And on Ryan Anderson, a scholar at the Heritage Foundation who works on religious issues, called the new order “woefully inadequate.”

The hoopla is clearly not justified in their minds.

So while the idea of the executive order is disturbing — and church/state separation groups have a right to be upset — it doesn’t ultimately change much. Just as with so many of Trump’s executive orders, this was all for show. Trump wanted a photo op with Religious Right leaders and nuns and whatever we’re calling Paula White these days, and he got it. If those religious people walked away thinking they got a deal, they were duped by the Con Artist In Chief.

That’s not to say something worse isn’t in the pipeline. (We’re still waiting to hear whether Christian business owners have a right to discriminate against LGBT customers.) But for now, this wasn’t as alarming as we thought it would be. The constraints of our Constitution are still in place. Don’t get suckered in by the sound bites.

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