Religion and politics have never been the most comfortable of companions, and the new executive order issued by the White House isn’t likely to make their relationship any easier or any fairer.
The order signed earlier this month by President Donald Trump takes aim at the Johnson Amendment, introduced in 1954 by the future president, Lyndon Johnson, as part of the nation’s tax code. It bars all non-profit tax-exempt agencies, not just churches, from endorsing or opposing political candidates.
The provision is rarely enforced by the Internal Revenue Service; The Washington Post reports that “more than 2,000 mainly evangelical Christian clergy have deliberately violated the law since 2008 as a form of protest against it; only one has been audited by the IRS, and none punished.” Still, Trump has promised to “totally destroy” its intent, leaving religious institutions open to becoming actively involved in politics.
Because portions of the evangelical community have ignored the Johnson Amendment, in response a growing number of synagogue and temple members have expressed strong disapproval of rabbis who either endorse or come close to endorsing candidates from the bimah. Any repeal of the amendment, or the actions included in Trump’s executive order, could make such entanglements more likely to happen.
To rescind the Johnson Amendment, Trump issued an executive order — signed on the National Day of Prayer, no less — that appears to simply reaffirm the freedom of speech of clergy and others who “engage in religious and political speech.”
Wrapping itself in the First Amendment, the order said:
“It shall be the policy of the executive branch to vigorously enforce Federal law’s robust protections for religious freedom. The Founders envisioned a Nation in which religious voices and views were integral to a vibrant public square, and in which religious people and institutions were free to practice their faith without fear of discrimination or retaliation by the Federal Government. For that reason, the United States Constitution enshrines and protects the fundamental right to religious liberty as Americans’ first freedom.”
But such high-flown language is deceiving. In effect, the new guidelines threaten to undermine rules that have been in place for more than 60 years and protect both sides of the equation, religion and politics.
Rabbi David Saperstein, who served during the Obama administration as U.S. ambassador for International Religious Freedom, stated the case clearly and concisely when he said that removing restrictions on religious officials and organizations taking part in politics is “not just bad legal policy and bad public policy, but bad religious policy as well.”
With his action, Trump was obviously playing to a basic constituency, religious evangelicals who feel that their agenda isn’t getting the proper respect and support in the political arena. Some of them didn’t even feel the president went far enough. But a poll released earlier this year by the National Association of Evangelicals shows that the executive order is misguided.
The poll found that 89 percent of evangelical leaders who responded feel that pastors should refrain from endorsing politicians from the pulpit. The group’s president, Leith Anderson, put it this way: “Most pastors I know don’t want to endorse politicians. They want to focus on teaching the Bible.”
Such sentiment echoes the results of a broader poll released last year by the Pew Research Center. It found that while Americans like their political leaders to have a religious foundation, and agree that religious institutions should express views on some moral and policy issues, they stopped short at favoring outright endorsements of political candidates by tax-exempt houses of worship.
The reasons that such a ban should persist are many, and sensible. There are concerns about allowing churches, synagogues and mosques to possibly become conduits for large political contributions, in effect turning them into institutions where money can be laundered.
Church funds designated for religious purposes could be diverted to politics. The approach posed by the executive order could even give rise to new “churches” that would be little more than fronts for political action committees.
For now, the executive order from the White House is not much more than a strong suggestion to the IRS, and many doubt it will have much practical effect. Any substantive changes in the ability of religious leaders and institutions to directly endorse political candidates would have to come from Congress.
But simply opening the door to change, and doing so in typically blunt, provocative language, sends the wrong signal at a time when Washington and the nation at large hardly need any more issues to sow divisions among the American public.
The old adage that religion and politics aren’t fit conversation for the dinner table probably isn’t a bad rule, especially in these times of superheated partisan rhetoric. Keeping religion and politics apart is an equally good idea.