Disclaimer: I wrote about this in a soon to be published article that’ll be appearing on the Atheist Alliance Of America‘s magazine: Secular Nation. This is not a repeat of that article, but rather me publicly talking about what is now known as the “Johnson Amendment” and Trump’s statements made about the “Johnson Amendment” at the National Prayer Breakfast and earlier statements he made last year.
The Johnson Amendment:
This is an important topic. Independent of how one feels about religion, this is something worth talking about. The “Johnson Amendment” is the amendment to the tax code that was made in 1954 by (at the time, Senator) Lyndon Johnson. What it did in practice was prohibit certain types of tax-exempt organizations from endorsing and opposing political candidates. Among those tax-exempt groups are churches. This is a big deal to some in the Evangelical crowd and Trump has previously weaponized it during his campaign to be president. But before we get to that I feel compelled to clarify what the “Johnson Amendment” does to those who violate it.
If you ignore the “Johnson Amendment” you’ll lose your tax-exempt status. That’s it. If your pastor engages in endorsing politicians from the pulpit they might have to pay taxes. That’s it. They won’t face any real penalties, they’ll just lose a privilege that’s been gifted to them by the government because they violated part of the tax code. The Trump talks about it you might suspect that pastors would face real retribution but loss of a privilege, while a penalty, is hardly worth sweating over.
Trump And The Amendment:
So the exact context of this clip was not the easiest to track down, but it was when Trump announced Pence was going to be his running mate. In this clip we see Trump stupidly mix-up “talk politics” with “talk religion”, at an event where many in the audience were Evangelical voters and the message was FOR Evangelical voters. Listening to the full audio (which can be found here) shows Trump making an inaccurate claim. He states that Evangelicals and other religious leaders are afraid to make political statements.
In case this is true, it’s not based on fact. Pastors can make political statements and not be afraid to lose their tax-exempt status. What they can’t do is endorse specific individuals, or disparage other specific individuals, who are politicians. In order to seriously demonstrate this, take a look at this article by Restore America which includes a statement that churches can lobby for legislation and even engage directly in lobbying activities. This clear shows that churches can talk politics. Additionally it even says that pastors can privately endorse candidates and participate in political committees so long as they are independent of the Church. Trump is fear-mongering because he thinks it’ll get him voters and up his approval rates.
In another fear-mongering statement, at the Voter Values Summit in D.C. in September of last year, Trump falsely complained that pastors are unable to talk politics out of fear of losing their tax-exempt status. Once again this is untrue, because not only are churches generally not antagonized by the IRS, not all political statements constitute a violation of the Johnson Amendment. All Trump will do (which is presumably his objective all-along) by removing the Johnson Amendment is make churches into the next PACs, which will be tax-free and thus have more money to send to him. The claim that pastors and other church leaders take “tremendous risk” when they talk about politics is of course nonsense but it’s nonsense that probably did allow Trump to gain additional Evangelical supporters.
Trump’s latest discussion of the Johnson Amendment happened today at the National Prayer Breakfast. He once again swore to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment saying that he’d make it so that pastors aren’t scared to talk politics anymore. This is a big deal. He keeps lying about this, because pastors are NOT scared to talk politics. Nor should they be. Talking politics is a basic freedom, and it is not denied to anyone, including pastors. There is a difference between talking politics, and talking about people. What pastors are not allowed to do, FROM THE PULPIT, is talk about people who are also politicians, specifically they cannot endorse or antagonize political candidates. This is not complex, and this is also not particularly restrictive.
Churches and pastors can and do play a complex role in the political lives of believers, and I support churches and pastors who embrace this role legally. But that doesn’t mean that churches, places that don’t pay taxes by definition, can freely use the money they save on not paying taxes to support candidates. If churches want to do this, they should have to pay taxes. This is absolutely not an unfair trade and Trump’s attempts to fear-monger should be insulting to pastors and to Christians everywhere and not just to skeptics who are keenly aware of how charming or exciting his words might sound to politically mind believers.
I sincerely hope to see more pastors and Christians condemning Trump’s attempts to appeal to baseless fears in their communities. He is making appeals to the emotions of scared Christians and Evangelicals in an attempt to drum up support and gain both virtual and real rounds of applause from supporters. He’s also trying to turn churches into political battlegrounds and potential gold-mines for the Republican Party and I hope that believers and people of faith can see this as well as skeptics can. Trump doesn’t actually care about houses of worship, he just wants the potential money that could come from them and its important that people of faith not be blinded by the immediate appeal of his words.
Stay skeptical and investigate claims of this nature whenever they appeal. It’s important that we ground our perceptions, particularly our political perceptions, in reality. A REALLY good article on this and one of my favorites comes from the Los Angeles Times, almost nine years ago. Check it out!