At the prayer breakfast yesterday, President Donald Trump made some interesting remarks about religious freedom, as guaranteed to all Americans in the First Amendment of the Constitution.
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.
The Johnson Amendment is named after former President Lyndon B Johnson, who introduced the measure in 1954, when he was a mere senator from Texas.
It makes tax-exempt entities like churches and charitable organizations unable, directly or indirectly, to participate in any political campaign on behalf of, or in opposition to, any candidate. In other words, preachers can’t endorse or oppose candidates from the pulpit unless they want to risk losing their tax-exempt status.
Sure, people on the left and on the right argue that churches shouldn’t be tax-exempt anyway, but when it comes to the Johnson Amednment, that’s completely beside the point. This law is one of the brightest and clearest lines ever drawn by lawmakers to separate church and state.
For the record, Mr Trump promised during the campaign, as part of an outreach effort to religious conservatives, that he would work to eliminate the Johnson Amendment, which has been a goal of people on the right side of the political spectrum in particular. The argument they make is that it violates their free speech rights and their free exercise rights in that they are being prohibited from doing something that may serve the best interests of their church.
The courts have not agreed, and the law stands. Given a movement last year led by Jerry Falwell Jr, whom Mr Trump has picked to head up a higher education initiative, in which Mr Falwell said repealing the Johnson Amendment would “create a huge revolution for conservative Christians and for free speech,” I can understand where Mr Trump is coming from. Repealing the Johnson Amendment would enable, among other things, political action committees launching from the church pulpit.
The problem, as any government student knows, is that presidents don’t “destroy” laws; they “enforce” them. So any destruction of the law would require an act of Congress. That could happen, but considerable opposition could be expected: Mr Trump’s promise to “destroy” the law is a direct violation of the Constitution—just in case anyone still cares.
- A draft of an order to “avoid potential violations of Religious Freedom” and not “coerce” religious people or organizations from “participating in activities that violate their conscience” is reportedly circulating in the White House. If the president ever sees and signs the order, it would open a vigorous debate over gay rights, women’s rights, and other “liberal” causes religious conservatives have historically sought to restrict.
I also have to wonder if anyone told Mr Trump that such a change would also affect mosques. You know: those houses of worship where Muslims pray and plot evil actions against infidels who are Christian Americans.
“When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” Sinclair Lewis is variously quoted as saying. Mr Trump here tells people of the great Christian church, the body of Christ, that all their dreams have come true. In fact, he moves one step closer to his own dreams of autocracy.