By The Rev. Dr. Rollin O. Russell
Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump has been telling audiences for months now that he wants to abolish the federal law that says non-profit, tax-exempt organizations can’t engage in partisan political activity by endorsing or opposing candidates for public office.
When Trump unleashed this line during the GOP convention, it got lots of cheers. It was clearly a bone thrown to the Religious Right boosters whom Trump has been wooing assiduously all year. To keep them happy, Trump has repeated the vow on the stump several times since.
What Trump has not done is provide any context for this issue, so allow me: The special tax status of religious organizations, like all 501 (c)(3) non-profit entities, not only exempts them from local property taxes but also makes all contributions to them tax exempt for the organization and tax-deductible for the donor.
The exemptions are predicated on the assumption that these organizations provide substantial social service and charitable work to and with those in need, without distinction, and hence are a benefit to the entire society.
The astonishing pledge to allow churches to jump into political campaigns not only compromises that basic reason for their exemption, it destroys one of the founding principles of the Constitution.
Separation of church and state is mandated in the first clause of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The nation has expanded and maintained its fundamental unity free of official bondage to religious dogma, and churches have thrived and grown free of government interference.
It is no accident that this provision is so prominent in our First Amendment. The founders highlighted it because they had seen far too much in Europe of religion’s entanglement with government. Religious dissenters were persecuted, and their property was confiscated; religious and civil authorities worked together to force the acceptance of particular doctrines and forms of worship. The founders of New England fled to America to escape exactly that sort of persecution.
A century and a half later, key founders drafted the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, making it clear that religion and government must be kept separate.
James Madison, in his message to the Virginia legislature in support of Thomas Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Freedom, observed, “We hold it for a fundamental and undeniable truth that religion or the duty we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence…. We maintain therefore that in matters of religion, no man’s right is abridged by the institution of Civil Society and that religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance.”
Madison later helped draft the First Amendment, bringing these principles into the Bill of Rights.
To allow churches to be partisan activists on behalf of candidates would upend this traditional separation of church and state that has served both institutions so well. It would destroy the integrity of the churches and compromise the impartiality of their service and charity. How could they pretend to serve all equally and impartially?
It would also open the possibility of tax-exempt contributions being used to promote political parties and candidates, and it would allow the contributors to deduct the gifts from their taxes. Churches funneling money to politicians! Really?
Churches that supported political candidates with promotional materials, in sermons, with contributions or in other ways could find themselves subject to the campaign-finance rules that now govern the activities of political action committees. Such a change will also compromise the integrity of government and presage an era of religious and theological competition within our politics.
Trump’s proposal has been overshadowed of late by talk of other issues – yet his church politicking scheme would have far-reaching and disastrous consequences. It is a destructive proposal that would undermine our nation. It should be rejected out of hand – no matter what happens next month.
The Rev. Dr. Rollin O. Russell is president of the Orange-Durham Chapter, N.C., of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.