Trump Signs Order to Allow Churches to Be More Political

Trump Signs Order to Allow Churches to Be More Political September 1, 2019

Whilst Trump goes about setting the media world alight with ridiculous tweets (including this one where he tweeted a classified image of Iran!), the Republicans get away with fulfilling all of their wildest fantasies, which Trump gladly signs off. Back in 2017, it concerned deconstructing the separation of church and state. I love that Second Amendmenters seem silent over other Constitution infringements…

Traditionally, churches receive tax exemption for not promoting political candidates (they can actually promote politically but at the risk of losing tax exemption). This challenged the “Johnson Amendment”. Sources suggested that there had been debates in the White House for some time over this, with Mike Pence wanting to repeal the Johnson Amendment with a much more conservative attack, but that this had been tempered by the much more moderate Ivanka Trump.

Given that, in that same year, 89 percent of evangelical leaders said in a National Association of Evangelicals poll that they don’t think pastors should endorse politicians from the pulpit, we had a situation whereby people think one thing in the cold, rational light of day, but say another when push comes to shove. The Washington Post reported:

President Trump on Thursday signed an executive order aimed at making it easier for churches to participate in politics, seeking to deliver on a campaign pledge to a community that overwhelmingly backed in him in last year’s election.

The order, which Trump unveiled with great fanfare in a Rose Garden ceremony, was cheered by some conservative Christians but seen as a disappointment by others, who said it fell short of the broader changes they wanted as part of a highly anticipated measure on religious liberties.

The order, Trump said, removes the financial threat faced by tax-exempt churches from the Internal Revenue Service when pastors speak out on behalf of political candidates. But some experts said it amounts to a mostly symbolic gesture with little likelihood of changing how the agency polices the issue.

Trump’s order — unveiled on a National Day of Prayer celebrated with religious leaders — also directs his administration to consider developing regulations related to religious objectors to an Obama administration mandate, scaled back by the courts, that required contraception services as part of health plans.

“For too long the federal government has used the power of the state as a weapon against people of faith, bullying and even punishing Americans for following their religious beliefs,” Trump said, later telling those gathered for the event that “you’re now in a position to say what you want to say . . . No one should be censoring sermons or targeting ­pastors.”

There was previously a leaked version of this that the administration has narrowed (it originally allowed discrimination of LGBT and single mothers on account of faith) but it was still a dangerous compromise of some core tenets of the Constitution.

However, o the flipside, the ACLU argued that this order is actually pretty impotent – perhaps just paying lip service:

“Today’s executive order signing was an elaborate photo-op with no discernible policy outcome,” American Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Anthony D. Romero said in a statement. “After careful review of the order’s text we have determined that the order does not meaningfully alter the ability of religious institutions or individuals to intervene in the political process.”…

The language in the order is less robust: It merely instructs the administration not to take “adverse action” against churches or religious figures for political speech that has “not ordinarily been treated as participation or intervention in a political campaign” for or against a candidate for office.

Rabbi David Saperstein, former ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, said that as crafted, Trump’s order isn’t likely to make a significant difference in enforcement practices.

Trump is merely seeking to carry out a campaign promise:

As a candidate and shortly after taking office, Trump declared that he would “totally destroy” what is known as the Johnson Amendment, the long-standing ban on churches and other tax-exempt organizations supporting political candidates.

I would argue that, since Trump has no principles, this is merely a case of positioning himself to be attractive to a particular part of the electorate (again, WASPs).

Personally, I think this acts as a dangerous wedge that can eventually lead to floodgates opening, though there has thankfully been little movement over the preceding two years.

Rabbi Jack Moline, president of the Interfaith Alliance, criticized the executive order in a statement.

“For decades, the Johnson Amendment has prevented houses of worship from being turned into partisan political tools. A majority of clergy — and Americans — support the status quo and oppose political endorsements from the pulpit.”

Nonreligious groups also support the Johnson Amendment, which applies broadly to charities, not just churches. The Secular Coalition for America called the executive order Thursday “an unprecedented attack on the separation of church and state by a sitting president.”

There is also provision in the order for the Hobby Lobby case amongst others. All in all, not good news for those of us who believe in secularism.

Part of the repeal text is as follows:

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. As used in this section, the term “adverse action” means the imposition of any tax or tax penalty; the delay or denial of tax-exempt status; the disallowance of tax deductions for contributions made to entities exempted from taxation under section 501(c)(3) of title 26, United States Code; or any other action that makes unavailable or denies any tax deduction, exemption, credit, or benefit.

The Washington Post further reported this being in Trump’s best interests:

In a civil complaint filed in June, then-Attorney General Barbara D. Underwood of New York charged that the now-defunct Donald J. Trump Foundation had violated the Johnson Amendment’s prohibition on supporting candidates for office.

Trump’s presidential campaign “extensively directed and coordinated the Foundation’s activities in connection with a nationally televised charity fundraiser for the Foundation in Des Moines, Iowa on January 28, 2016,” Underwood charged. The fundraiser was billed as an effort to “raise funds for veterans’ organizations,” but the Trump campaign commandeered nearly $2.8 million in donations and “dictated the manner in which the Foundation would disburse those proceeds, directing the timing, amounts and recipients of the grants.”

“In addition, in February 2016, while on the campaign trail, Mr. Trump spoke out against the prohibition on charities participating in political campaigns,” Underwood added, referring to Trump’s comments at a campaign stop in South Carolina, in which he said: “They’re willing to take your tax exemption and tax status away from you if you talk. That happened during Lyndon Johnson’s reign and I would put that back so fast … we’re going to get rid of that.”

Trump has publicly claimed that the Johnson Amendment is a thing of the past, that he has “got rid” of it but the reality is that, as mentioned before, the order was initially quite toothless. Trump said in 2017:

“The evangelicals were so great to me. … They came out in record numbers. They never came out like that. And we’ve really helped. Because I’ve gotten rid of the Johnson Amendment. Now we’re going to go try and get rid of it permanently in Congress. But I signed an executive order so that now, people like you — that I want to hear from — ministers and preachers and rabbis and whoever it may be, they can speak. You couldn’t speak politically before. Now you can.”

And he has made many similar claims since then.

As to where this leaves Americans concerned with this is still to be seen. Evangelicals are still rather obsessed with things like repealing the Johnson Amendment in full. If this happens in full, we may see the whole edifice of church-state separation come tumbling down.


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