Religious liberty

On Churches in Politics, Trump Does … Nothing

The president's executive order on religious freedom lacks any sort of substance.

|

Trump
Cheriss May/Sipa USA/Newscom

With hundreds of executive branch jobs yet to be filled, the Trump administration needs a lot of people. One person it especially needs is Goldilocks, who might save the president from his habit of doing too much or too little but seldom getting anything just right.

In the executive order he signed Thursday titled "Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty," Donald Trump had a rare opportunity to pursue a small yet significant change that would have accomplished both of his stated purposes. Instead, he ceremoniously unveiled a heaping platter of nothingburgers.

In February, at the National Prayer Breakfast, Trump extolled religious freedom and promised: "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."

If you're not familiar with the Johnson Amendment, don't feel bad. It's safe to assume Trump wasn't either until he ran for president. Enacted into law in 1954, it prohibits churches and other nonprofit organizations from taking part in political campaigns, on pain of losing their federal tax exemption.

The basic reason for it is sound. Political contributions are not tax-deductible, because Americans don't want to indirectly subsidize them. If churches were allowed to engage in active electioneering, citizens could give money to churches to help their favored candidates and then deduct those "religious" donations on their 1040s.

This policy would have a couple of bad effects, besides the loss of revenue. One would be to encourage churches to become partly or solely political entities, at the expense of real political entities. In fact, it would be only a matter of time before partisan activists would form "churches" that hold no services and need no pews. They would exist purely to help candidates get elected.

That would work to the detriment of real churches, fostering cynicism about their true function. It would jeopardize popular support for their tax treatment, which was granted partly in deference to the separation of church and state.

We've long had a rough bargain between religious institutions and government. The deal is that because they, unlike other organizations, are not allowed to get financial aid from the government, neither should they be required to provide financial aid (in the form of taxes) to the government. The exemption also encourages charitable activities, by secular as well as religious groups, which are seen as good for society because they help those in need and lessen the burden of public aid.

But the Johnson Amendment also bars political activities that don't cost a dime. If a pastor recommends a vote for a candidate during the course of a Sunday sermon that would be given regardless, no money is spent, and no indirect government subsidy occurs. As a literal matter, though, that pastor's statement violates the law.

"It doesn't evade campaign finance regulation, it doesn't create a path for deductible campaign spending, and it ought to be protected," University of Virginia law professor Douglas Laycock told me. It's pure political speech, which the First Amendment was designed to cover.

Securing this zone of freedom is what Trump might have proposed but didn't, quite. His fuzzy order directs the Treasury Department not to "take any adverse action" against a religious leader or church who has "spoken about moral or political issues from a religious perspective."

It's the equivalent of strumming an air guitar. The IRS has long taken a relaxed view of the Johnson Amendment, cheerfully ignoring sermons that veer into political endorsements. But Trump didn't even explicitly reaffirm that tolerant policy.

The reasonable answer is to write it into law—leaving no doubt about what is permitted and shielding clergy against any future IRS decision to get tough. What Trump did, though, was an empty gesture.

Even his usual defenders couldn't defend him this time. The National Organization for Marriage said it "falls far short of what is needed." Heritage Foundation fellow Ryan T. Anderson dismissed the executive order as "weak" and "woefully inadequate."

The American Civil Liberties Union, which had been preparing to go to court to challenge Trump's order, decided there was no need. "Today's executive order signing was an elaborate photo-op with no discernible policy outcome," it said, amounting to "a textbook case of 'fake news.'"

Trump is no Goldilocks, and in this instance, he's not even the Big Bad Wolf. He huffed and he puffed, but nothing came down.

© Copyright 2017 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

NEXT: Here come Trump's judges: President to put forward more strong judicial nominees

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Seems like Trump keeps on making all the wrong moves.

    1. One person it especially needs is Goldilocks, who might save the president from his habit of doing too much or too little but seldom getting anything just right.

      Seems like Chapman’s never read the fairytale. Trespassing/B&E, theft… obsessing over porridge. She makes all the wrong decisions and gets chased off and/or killed by a group of bears.

      Not the sort of decision maker I’d want as a head of state.

    2. That’s normal for every President since I started kindergarten in 1962. Except for Kennedy, who was shot before he could totally fuck things up.

      1. Bay of Pigs? Sure, that actually happened before 1962, but it was still Kennedy.

        1. I took it to be sarcasm, an appreciative understatement of Kennedy’s true power for destruction.

  2. I imagine that no one was happier about that executive order than the writers at Reason (with maybe two exceptions). Because it was such a useless order, Reason didn’t have to write pants-shitting articles pretending like the first clause in the First Amendment along with RFRA were non-existent. Back to the important stuff, like Uber.

  3. Recall that the ACLU is the same organization that is suing a Catholic run hospital for referring a woman seeking sex reassignment surgery to another hospital because removing healthy reproductive organs goes against Catholic religious belief. The ACLU is quite for imposing their beliefs on others and against religious freedom.

  4. I think it’s great that Reason staff is writing articles calling for Donald Trump to protect the right of evangelical Christians pastors to actively campaign from the pulpit free from government interference.

    And that’s what’s being argued, here, right?

    Amirite?

    If and when Trump endorses a bill to specifically protect evangelical ministers’ right to campaign from the pulpit, we can count on Reason staff to support Trump on that–isn’t that right?

    Isn’t that what’s being said here? That you don’t support Trump’s executive order here–because it doesn’t do enough to protect the right of evangelical preachers to campaign from the pulpit?

    Consider this piece bookmarked.

    1. Haha- that’s funny. You act like this is a libertarian publication that defends individual rights or something.

      1. How can you say that!

        I think it’s fairly obvious that Chapman is deeply concerned about Trump not doing enough for politically active evangelical Christians and their politically active pastors!

        Why, Trump is only paying lip service to their political frustration. What we really need is a president who will take the frustrations of social conservatives seriously in their attempts to influence policy and law!

        Either that, or Chapman has wandered so far into the weeds in trying to discredit Trump that he’s ended up in the swamp–and he doesn’t even realize it.

        Anyway, I think one of those is more likely than the other. Can you guess which one?

    2. Just out of curiosity, are you sarcastically trying to make the point that there are times when certain people shouldn’t be able to say certain things?

      It’s a little unclear to me. Probably because I’m dumb.

      1. I’m pointing out that merely paying lip service to social conservatives who want to influence policy and law isn’t necessarily a bad quality in a President.

        I’m pointing out that TDS is real.

        I’m pointing out that if Trump were pushing hard for the interests of evangelical political activists, that Chapman and others would probably be condemning him for it.

        I’m pointing out that TDS can make people wander so far into the weeds that they end up in the swamp without even realizing it*.

        What’s next? Are we going to condemn President Liz Warren for merely paying lip service to the policy interests of the communists?

        *H/T to Suthenboy

        1. Another thing that Chapman left out was that Trump made it clear that Congress would have to repeal the Johnson Amendment or makes changes, not the President.

          Chapman just cannot say that Trump is purposefully addressing campaign promises. Some are being completed better than other promises.

    3. Isn’t that what’s being said here? That you don’t support Trump’s executive order here–because it doesn’t do enough to protect the right of evangelical preachers to campaign from the pulpit?

      Yes, it is.

      1. I thought so!

        So, bookmark this piece . . . and if and when Trump gets a law to sign that makes it okay for evangelical preachers to campaign from the pulpit, we’ll see what Chapman says then.

  5. since practicing your religion is a right they can’t be taxed otherwise its not a right. practicing your right to free speech political or otherwise can’t be taxed and neither should it be regulated buy the government and both should be free to participate in both practices unencumbered by anything.

  6. Abusus non tollit usum.

    (Abuse does not exclude use.)

  7. “With hundreds of executive branch jobs yet to be filled, the Trump administration needs a lot of people.”

    Citation needed.

    “Political contributions are not tax-deductible, because Americans don’t want to indirectly subsidize them.”

    Americans embrace the idiotic idea a tax deduction constitutes a subsidy, and on that basis restrict freedom. How is this “sound”?

    “This policy would have a couple of bad effects, besides the loss of revenue.”

    A Libertarian publication runs an article citing the loss of government revenue as a “bad effect”.

    “In fact, it would be only a matter of time before partisan activists would form “churches” that hold no services and need no pews.”

    And there is no way the IRS could ever get hip to that.

    “That would work to the detriment of real churches, fostering cynicism about their true function.”

    It is the job of government to make sure people are not cynical about religion?

    The rest of this piece is the usual Reason nonsense of pretending to oppose an action in favor of religious freedom on technocratic grounds. Chapman does not want to give pastors more freedom to voice their political views. Give me a break.

    1. “Chapman does not want to give pastors more freedom to voice their political views. Give me a break.”

      Surely he’s deeply principled in his concern for social conservatives, the frustrations of politically active evangelicals, and the free speech rights of the evangelical preachers who lead them!

      LOL

    2. “A Libertarian publication runs an article citing the loss of government revenue as a “bad effect”.”

      Assuming such a thing was your first mistake. Just like the ‘Libertarian’ Party (which recently voiced support for taxing churches) they’re advocating a type of left-wing Reform Party position.

  8. I do not buy that “the basic reason for it is sound.” If we are going to have tax-exempt churches on the rationale that going to church is protected by the First Amendment and “the power to tax is the power to destroy” — and we do — then we should extend the same protection to all First Amendment activities. Not only poltical campaigns but also the media (including both news and entertainment) ought to be tax-exempt too, so that they too cannot be destroyed.

  9. RE: On Churches in Politics, Trump Does … Nothing

    “If you’re not familiar with the Johnson Amendment, don’t feel bad. It’s safe to assume Trump wasn’t either until he ran for president. Enacted into law in 1954, it prohibits churches and other nonprofit organizations from taking part in political campaigns, on pain of losing their federal tax exemption.”

    Call me stupid, but I thought there was a concept out there called “separation of church and state.”
    I stand corrected.

  10. Trump lacks any sort of substance. I for one can’t understand why anyone would want to get involved in politics, but politicians are a necessary evil until we come up with something better. Trump with his zero experience in politics is mostly a fart in the wind.

  11. How do you people call yourselves libertarians? We want FEWER taxes and MORE freedom…any organization should be able to have free speech (which includes political campaigning), period. We should also welcome making more donations tax deductible, including those given to politically inclined churches.

  12. A simple statement that the pastor, priest, rabbi or imam perfers one candidate to another should be protected as part of free speech. However, the more passionate prelates won’t stop there. They will tell their flocks that voting for the other guy is a sin which will lead them straight to the gates of hell because that candidate supports gay rights, abortion or whatever. This kind of partisanship oversteps the line and should not be allowed. The Supreme Court said our laws require one man- one vote. Using coercion to force people to vote your way, violates every tenet of our democracy. And it isn’t good for the churches either. Some of the strongest supporters of the minority president included leaders of Evangelical congregations and those congregations have been losing members since the election.

    1. Of course such speech should be allowed, Chump!!!…That what FREEDOM OF SPEECH IS!!!!

  13. Something Donald Trump said or did lacks substance? How could you say that? You must be some sort of a progressive dweeb. I suppose you would even criticize his recent speech in which his oratory reached the pinnacle of presidential rhetoric. He said, and I quote, “Blah, blah, b.s., we’re gonna, blah, blah, b.s., b.s. American, blah, blah blah, great again, blah, b.s. blah.” If this famous speech of Trump’s lacks substance, the Gettysburg Address was mere posey.

  14. I get paid 99.00 bucks every hour for work at home on my laptop. I never thought I’d be able to do it but my good friend HUe is earning 22.00k /monthly by doing this job and she showed me how. Try it out on following website

    …… http://www.Prowage20.com

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.