After Trump’s Religious Freedom Order, Warnings Against Churches ‘Biting the Apple’ of Close Ties to Politics Abound
by David Waters
When church and state crawl into bed together, they both have one thing on their minds.
The propagation of political power.
That’s why Roger Williams first warned us to guard the “wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wilderness of the world.”
Williams, the great Puritan preacher and religious freedom fighter of the 1700’s, was worried about the church, not the state.
“He was saying that mixing church and state corrupted the church,” wrote historian John M. Barry, “that when one mixes religion and politics, one gets politics.”
That’s what we got last week when church and state got together in the Rose Garden, and elsewhere at the White House, for National Day of Prayer and Political Posturing.
The optics were beautiful. The Rose Garden ceremony featured a smiling President of the United States surrounded by a we-are-the-world choir or smiling religious leaders.
There was a Catholic cardinal and a Little Sister of the Poor, a rabbi in a black fedora and a Sikh in a gold turban, a black minister and a white one, a male minister and a female one.
Norman Rockwell himself couldn’t have painted a more inclusively American picture.
“Not only are we a nation of faith, we are a nation of tolerance,” said President Trump, who has been trying to bar Muslims from America and scare the Shia and Sunni out of Muslim Americans.
Trump had gathered everyone together to watch him sign an executive order he said would make it easier for clergy and congregations to participate in partisan politics.
Easier? Somewhere, the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Pat Robertson were also smiling.
“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.
He was referring, primarily, to the 1954 Johnson Amendment. It’s a provision of the U.S. Tax Code that prohibits churches (and all other tax-exempt non-profit organizations) from overtly endorsing or opposing political candidates.
Trump’s order instructs the IRS 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.
I had to read that three times to realize the President was telling the IRS to keep doing what it’s doing.
In the entire history of the Johnson Amendment, only one church has ever lost its tax-exempt status for partisan politicking.
In fact, since 2008, more than 2,000 pastors have “challenged” the IRS on “Pulpit Freedom Sundays.” One was audited on an unrelated matter. None were punished.
Trump’s order was so innocuous the ACLU decided not to challenge it in court.
“Today’s executive order signing was an elaborate photo-op with no discernible policy outcome,” ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero said in a statement.
So why the show?
Republicans in Congress are working on a bill to repeal the Johnson Amendment. If that happens, churches can become supernatural super PACs.
Super PACs have to disclose their donors. Churches do not. Donations to Super PACs are not tax-deductible. Donations to churches are.
A wealthy person could give a church — or a faith-based 501(c)3 — $1 million to support a particular candidate, and the church or charity could do whatever it likes with the cash.
Evangelical political leaders who had dinner last week with Trump were practically giddy with the prospects.
“Mr. President, we’re going to be your most loyal friends,” said Robert Jeffress, a Texas megachurch pastor who introduced Trump at campaign rallies last year. “We’re going to be your enthusiastic supporters. And we thank God every day that you’re the president of the United States.”
Ralph Reed, the former politician who runs the Faith and Freedom Coalition, issued an even more telling statement.
Trump’s order is “just the first bite at the apple, not the last,” he wrote.
That was a reference to another church garden.
SOURCE: David Waters
The Commercial Appeal
Trump casts faith leaders as unpaid extras in his TV-show presidency
by Jacob Lupfer
The Donald Trump Show briefly turned its attention to religion this week, inviting its recurring cast of faith-leader characters to the White House for the unveiling of a weak executive order on religious freedom.
Whether enthusiastically or reluctantly, most social conservatives supported the Trump-Pence ticket last year. Among the tortured justifications? Hillary Clinton and the Democrats would be hostile to their free exercise of religion but they could count on the libertine New York billionaire to protect and defend them.
Throughout the campaign, Trump was continually disinterested in and ignorant about actual religious liberty concerns. However, he seized on the Johnson Amendment, a 1954 IRS provision that prohibits tax-exempt religious nonprofits like churches from engaging in overt political activity.
In our new legal landscape that requires same-sex unions be recognized as marriages, many faith leaders who cling to old-fashioned beliefs are concerned about issues ranging from state-funded financial aid to accreditation of religious colleges to conscience protections for people who do not celebrate gay weddings.
Trump has repeatedly ignored these concerns, promising instead to make clergy powerful again with his aim to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment. That would only further politicize churches and allow Trump’s clergy disciples to endorse him from their pulpits.
Executive orders are increasingly fashionable ways for presidents to act unilaterally when they fail legislatively, offering symbolic gestures to important constituencies on areas of policy they are too disinterested or politically weak to push through Congress.
The political optics of executive orders are cheap and easy, making them especially appealing to a president like Trump who acts like he is producing a TV show about himself.
So Trump’s faith-leader fans were summoned to Washington on Wednesday (May 3) to dine at the president’s table and cheer his signing ceremony the next day.
SOURCE: Religion News Service
Jacob Lupfer is a contributing editor at RNS and a doctoral candidate in political science at Georgetown University.