Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump addressed a gathering of conservative evangelical pastors yesterday in Florida and once again vowed to allow houses of worship to jump into partisan politics if he is elected.
Increasingly, Trump is making this issue the cornerstone of his outreach to the Religious Right. On the stump, Trump waves his arms and screams that the federal law that bars tax-exempt, non-profit groups (including houses of worship) from endorsing or opposing candidates for public office silences the voice of the religious community.
Trump then promises to get rid of the “Johnson Amendment.” The provision is named after Lyndon B. Johnson, who inserted it into law in 1954 when he was a U.S. senator. Details are a bit hazy, but according to some accounts, LBJ was being attacked by tax-exempt foundations during a reelection fight and sought to stop them from using the lucrative benefit of tax exemption for partisan purposes.
There a couple of issues to consider here. First, who persuaded Trump that this issue would be a winner for him? Let’s face it, it’s highly unlikely that Trump knew the Johnson Amendment from Johnson Wax three months ago. He went off on this tear because someone – cough, cough, Jerry Falwell Jr. – told him it would appeal to conservative evangelical voters.
The second issue is this: Is Falwell right? Will calling for a repeal of the Johnson Amendment spur right-wing evangelicals to flock to Trump and carry him to victory in November? Polls show that conservative evangelicals are already with Trump – although it’s likely these people are endorsing him because they can’t stand Hillary Clinton.
The more compelling question, then, is what does everyone else think about this issue?
The number of Americans who are likely to factor an issue like church politicking into their voting decision is probably quite low. But we do know that most Americans don’t agree with right-wing evangelicals on this question.
Political endorsements of candidates should not emanate from this place.
According to a survey taken in 2008 by LifeWay Research, an affiliate of the Southern Baptist Convention, 75 percent of Americans do not believe “it is appropriate for churches to publicly endorse candidates for public office.”
In addition, 85 percent think it is not “appropriate for churches to use their resources to campaign for candidates for public office.” Eighty-seven percent do not “believe it is appropriate for pastors to publicly endorse candidates for public office during a church service.” A more recent poll by the Pew Forum found similar results.
It seems the American people know something that Trump and Falwell do not: Houses of worship exist to address people’s spiritual needs, not to hand down a list of endorsements prior to election day.
Trump may hope that highlighting this issue will give him a huge payoff at the ballot box, but it’s not likely. The Religious Right obsesses over this question, but most Americans don’t. Those who take some time to think about it disagree with Trump and Falwell that America’s houses of worship should become centers for partisan politicking.
P.S. Remember, Americans United is sponsoring a petition to urge the IRS to more aggressively enforce the Johnson Amendment. Sign it here – and pass it along to others.