Monday, June 18, 2018

Will Trump succeed in repealing the Johnson Amendment? (And why does he want to?)

A follow-up to the December 2017 discussion of Stephen Mansfield's book Choosing Trump.

Donald Trump campaigned on the promise to repeal the Johnson Amendment, a part of the IRS code that prohibits 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations, including churches, from participating in partisan politics and endorsing candidates. Political religious organizations would benefit from repealing this rule. (As a matter of popular opinion, however, even most religious people do not want their churches to become arms of partisan politics.)

June 2018

In June 2018, while Trump was in Singapore speaking to Kim Jong-Un, Vice President Mike Pence revived the issue of the Johnson Amendment:

And why was Trump so interested in repealing the Johnson Amendment? Here's one theory:

Hemant Mehta wrote on June 16 that we invoke the Johnson Amendment in our popular understanding when "referring to the rule prohibiting religious leaders from endorsing candidates from the pulpit," but: "The Johnson Amendment isn’t really about churches. It’s about non-profits. The same rule that bars pastors from endorsing candidates also bars the ACLU and the NRA and AARP from doing the same thing." Thus, New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood's recent lawsuit claims the Trump family engaged in “persistently illegal conduct” through its family foundation. This includes the donation of $25,000 in 2013 to the reelection campaign of Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi (R) and also paying expenses for Trump's own campaign in early 2016. Mehta quotes Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State: "When Trump started talking about how he’d like to “destroy” the Johnson Amendment, I just assumed that Jerry Falwell Jr. or another one of his Religious Right lackeys fed him the line because, unlike most religious leaders in America, they are eager to politicize their pulpits and issue orders on how congregants ought to vote. But it turns out a move like that could be a huge benefit to Trump himself."

It's one matter to acknowledge that religion and politics are both driven by values and that it's difficult and potentially undesirable to compartmentalize values. Rabbi Michael Lerner wrote in 2006: "A progressive spiritual politics agrees with the Religious Right that there is no such thing as a neutral public sphere. Our political institutions, our economic institutions, and our dominant culture are all suffused with values. And by and large today those values are rooted in an ethos of materialism and selfishness that is corrosive to human life, to community, and to religious and spiritual values."

However, a commitment to values in all major spheres of life does not entail that organizations that endorse partisan candidates should be granted tax exemptions by the government.

August 2018

As the New York Times reported: "Eliminating the provision in the law would require Congress to act. Instead, Mr. Trump signed an executive order in May 2017 directing the Internal Revenue Service not to aggressively pursue cases in which a church endorses a candidate or makes political donations." Yet, speaking Aug. 27, 2018 to about a hundred evangelical leaders who were invited to the White House, he "spent most of his private remarks to the group bragging about having gotten 'rid of' the Johnson Amendment, a 1954 provision of tax law that threatened religious organizations, like churches, with the loss of tax-exempt status if they endorse or oppose political candidates." (An attendee made an audio recording of the remarks.)

"His lie, then," Sarah Jones said in The New Republic, "raises a familiar question for white evangelicals, who form Trump’s most consistent base of support: What have they really gotten from him?" Noting that the political victories are imperfect or still in progress and that they come with costs (moral considerations, such as "his alleged affairs and cruel immigration policies," are in play), Jones says she believes that these evangelical leaders came to the White House because they "believed the president really had axed the Johnson Amendment."

May 2019

At the National Day of Prayer at the White House on May 2, 2019, Trump again claimed, "We got rid of the Johnson Amendment." Once again, a Washington Post article exlained that this is untrue. The 2017 executive order had "the stated purpose of giving more leeway to religious groups in the realm of political speech. In practice, though, the executive order does not ease the Johnson Amendment’s restrictions, as the Justice Department later stated in court." The language of the executive order has qualifiers "('to the extent permitted by law,' 'consistent with law')" that seem to acknowledge that the Johnson Amendment still has power, and, "in any case, executive orders cannot overwrite the laws passed by Congress."


Michael Lerner. The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right. HarperSanFrancisco, 2006. p. 28.

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