Johnson Amendment: Demolishing A Different Kind of Wall

Johnson Amendment: Demolishing A Different Kind of Wall February 3, 2017

Donald Trump is waving his Johnson Amendment around again. But it’s the American people who will get schlonged.

The Berlin Wall separated people and made them less free. But the Johnson Amendment ensures our freedom by built a wall of separation between Church and State.
Photo credit: Steven Williamson. The Berlin Wall made people less free. But the Johnson Amendment is the mortar that binds the wall of separation between Church and State.

Okay, so it isn’t his Johnson Amendment. In fact, it was named after his predecessor in presidential polarization, dating from the days when LBJ was in the Senate. But Trump has used the Johnson Amendment to great effect to rally evangelicals around the candidacy of someone who, in the language they like to use, is very much a sinner.

But only people with the profound brain damage my doctors thought I had would believe that The Donald is a born again Christian…or any kind of real Christian at all. As if further evidence were needed, Trump used the opportunity of his first National Prayer Breakfast to joke that the assembled religious leaders should pray for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ratings on The Apprentice.

Perhaps in Trump’s next executive order, he’ll abolish pride as a deadly sin.

Donald Trump’s idea of theology is the prosperity gospel…his own. Indeed, that’s what Trump’s promises of dismembering the Johnson Amendment is all about.

If the Johnson Amendment were “totally destroyed,” as the president promised in the Prayer Breakfast, pastors could not only endorse politicians from the pulpit, but donations to politically active churches would be tax exempt.

That’s right, political donations could be laundered and tax-free if channelled through “nonprofits”–or should I say nonprophets?

Now, let’s remember that the Johnson Amendment doesn’t prevent churches and nonprofit organizations from electioneering or endorsing candidates. It simply strips them of their tax exemption, which has long been objectionable to secularists anyway.

And, frankly, the IRS no longer has the budget or the will to enforce the Johnson Amendment anyway. After all, Jerry Falwell Jr. and his Liberty University didn’t face an IRS investigation after Falwell not only endorsed, but campaigned for…you guessed it, Donald Trump.

It’s also important to point out that the clergy can in fact speak for or against politicians without jeopardizing their tax exempt status if they aren’t currently running for office. But what fun is that if you can’t put your Religious Right thumb on the political scale?

If that’s the case, what’s the big deal? Well, for one thing, the fear of losing their tax exempt status  restrains churches and nonprofits from brazenly violating the provisions of the Amendment.

You think Hobby Lobby was bad (and remember who ruled on that case)? Try the free-for-all that would break out as tax-exempt Christian Right groups scramble over each other on the steps of Capitol Hill, in a mad dash to shed the pretense of not being political organizations.

Will the Johnson Amendment Be the First Breach of Many?

Freedom of religion is a sacred right, but it is also a right under threat all around us.

That’s what Donald Trump said at the National Prayer Breakfast. The irony is that he was right…and he’s the one threatening the freedom of Americans. The Trump administration is in the midst of drafting sweeping new orders to permit discrimination against the LGBT community, minorities, women, and potentially even non-Christians, all in the guise of religious freedom.

And who’s to say that wouldn’t include atheists? After all, we’re among the least popular faith groups of all.

As quoted in the Washington Post, Rachel Tiven, Lambda Legal’s chief executive, said that these policies amounted to “an invitation to theocracy. It is the privileging of some religions over others, and an invitation by members of those religions to flout the law.”

Trump may want to build his Mexican wall, but he’s aiming to demolish a far more important one: The wall of separation between Church and State. He’s already stated that he wants to give preference to Christian refugees.

No religious test there, no siree.

Demolishing Jefferson’s Big, Beautiful Wall of Separation

But to add insult to constitutional injury, Trump had the chutzpah to quote the man who helped enshrine separationism in our constitution. Trump said, as quoted in The Friendly Atheist:

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?”

Perhaps the president isn’t aware that Jefferson not only drafted the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which was the foundation upon which Church/State separation was built. Or, that the Virginia Voltaire refused to order national days of fasting or prayer, despite the fact that his two less-than-religious predecessors had done so.

As Old Tom said,

Be this as it may, every one must act according to the dictates of his own reason, & mine tells me that civil powers alone have been given to the President of the U.S. and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents.

I hasten to add that Jefferson would’ve been aghast at the very notion that there is such a thing as a National Prayer Breakfast in the first place.

Trump is following the lead of Christian Right leaders who have taken to quoting Jefferson out of context to imply that he was one of them. Nothing could be further from the truth, as the third president of the United States, in his usual rhetorical excess, repeatedly disproved.

In fact, Jefferson was so notorious for his anti-Christian comments that he was commonly believed to be an atheist.

Sadly, we heathens cannot honestly claim Jefferson as one of our own. He was actually a deist, a belief often confused with atheism in his day (though this rumor was exploited by the Adams campaign).

But no matter how Jefferson’s words are twisted, he was most assuredly not a Christian.

The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the Supreme Being as his father, in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.

So, what would Tom think of Christian clergy inserting “our particular superstition” into politics, as he put it?

In every country and in every age the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in dalliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.

That’s the other reason why our particular despot is trying to free the priestly hand. But at least the president got something right.

Thomas Jefferson was great.

Donald Trump, you’re no Thomas Jefferson. And get your hands off his wall.


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