When it comes to the matter of houses of worship endorsing political candidates, Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump said he is out to make Religious Right dreams come true.
The federal tax code currently prohibits all 501(c)(3) non-profits, including religious institutions, from using their resources to intervene in elections by endorsing or opposing candidates for public office. But during his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in July, Trump promised to do away with that longstanding prohibition if he wins the presidency.
“At this moment, I would like to thank the evangelical community who have been so good to me and so supportive,” Trump said. “You have so much to contribute to our politics, yet our laws prevent you from speaking your minds from your own pulpits.
“An amendment, pushed by Lyndon Johnson many years ago, threatens religious institutions with a loss of their tax-exempt status if they openly advocate their political views,” Trump added. “I am going to work very hard to repeal that language and protect free speech for all Americans.”
Trump is correct that the origin of the pulpit politicking prohibition comes from then-U.S. Sen. Lyndon Johnson (D-Texas), who in 1954 pushed for the amendment to the tax code. But Trump got it wrong when he said that churches risk their tax-exempt status “if they openly advocate their political views.”
Unfortunately, Trump bought into the long-held Religious Right argument that the so-called “Johnson Amendment” violates the free speech rights of churches, a position the far right adopted because it sees this aspect of the tax code as the only thing stopping churches from becoming political action committees. As a result, religious zealots have long advocated for the repeal of the amendment, but Trump is the first presidential candidate to state openly that he wants to see it go.
Some might find it surprising that Trump would use the prominent stage of the Republican convention to advocate for the repeal of a federal tax code provision that many Americans are not even aware of, but this was not the first time Trump – or the Republican Party – has mentioned it during this campaign season.
In February, Trump was making excuses for why he couldn’t comply with the tradition that presidential candidates release their personal tax returns for public scrutiny. At the time, he made the eyebrow-raising claim that he was being persecuted by the Internal Revenue Service for his “strong Christian” beliefs. He then discussed his desire to end the rule prohibiting 501(c)(3) organizations from endorsing candidates.
“I am gonna work like hell to get rid of that prohibition, and we are gonna have the strongest Christian lobby, and it’s gonna happen...,” Trump said during a rally in Texas. “This took place during the presidency of Lyndon Johnson [sic], and it has had a terrible chilling effect…. Now we’re gonna get rid of that. We’re gonna work very hard. That’s one of the first things I want to do. I want to get rid of that, and politically if we use that power, we’re gonna start going, go up up up, because we are being decimated. So just remember that. Just remember I said it.”
During a June meeting with evangelicals in New York City, Trump again raised the issue. “I think maybe that will be my greatest contribution to Christianity – and other religions – is to allow you, when you talk religious liberty, to go and speak openly, and if you like somebody or want somebody to represent you, you should have the right to do it,” he asserted.
At that time, Trump had not yet secured the Republican nomination, so it was unclear if he would ever have the chance to follow through on his talk. Then came the party convention and Trump’s formal nomination. Even before his nomination, however, Trump again expressed his intent to let churches endorse candidates.
“And I said – and I said for the evangelicals, that we’re going to do something that nobody’s even tried to do,” Trump said July 16 while introducing his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence. “You have the Johnson Amendment passed by Lyndon Johnson and his group...And we call it the Johnson Amendment…we put into the platform, we’re going to get rid of that horrible Johnson Amendment. And we’re going to let evangelicals, we’re going to let Christians and Jews and people of religion talk without being afraid to talk.”
A few days later, the Republican Party’s official platform was released. It included a call to repeal the Johnson Amendment.
“We value the right of America’s religious leaders to preach, and Americans to speak freely, according to their faith,” the platform stated. “Republicans believe the federal government, specifically the IRS, is constitutionally prohibited from policing or censoring speech based on religious convictions or beliefs, and therefore we urge the repeal of the Johnson Amendment.”
When news of this platform plank broke, Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn was quick to respond. He strongly condemned the proposal.
“The Republican platform seeks to turn America’s houses of worship into miniature political action committees,” Lynn said in a statement to media. “I can’t imagine a more disruptive idea for our nation’s religious community or a real impediment to campaign finance reform.”
Lynn noted that the ban on partisan politicking encompasses many non-profit groups, religious and secular. The idea behind it, he said, is to ensure that the desirable benefit of tax exemption is awarded only to organizations that operate in the public interest, not partisan entities. (Lynn pointed out that the amendment bars only endorsement or opposition of candidates. Speaking out on issues is permitted.)
The proposal, Lynn said, would further divide Americans. He pointed out that several polls have shown that Americans overwhelmingly oppose partisan politicking in houses of worship.
“Religious communities are places Americans can go to escape the partisan divide of ‘red’ and ‘blue’ that has polarized our nation,” Lynn said. “Repealing the ‘no-politicking’ rule would inevitably lead some houses of worship to focus on supporting candidates in exchange for financial and other aid.”
Since Trump, the thrice-married reality television star, had not claimed to be a man of deep faith until recently, many observers did not expect him to make a fervent push to change the tax code for the benefit of far-right churches that want to play political games. While it is not known for sure what motivated the real estate mogul to dive into this area of policy, many suspect one of his Religious Right allies convinced him to take a stand against the Johnson Amendment.
Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. was an early adopter of Trump’s candidacy, endorsing the bombastic hopeful at a time when many Religious Right leaders were backing other candidates who eventually dropped out of the race.
In January, Falwell made a personal endorsement of Trump and invited him to speak to Liberty students that same month. It’s no wonder, then, that Falwell said Trump called him one morning in July ahead of the release of the Republican Party Platform.
“He was so excited,” Falwell told Time magazine of Trump. “After 30 years of the so-called conservative leaders who have been elected by evangelicals, none of them thought to advocate for the repeal of the Johnson Amendment, giving evangelical leaders political free speech. … He thinks it is going to be a revolution in the Christian world.”
It’s no surprise that Falwell was pleased by this news. After all, he is a repeat offender of the no-endorsement rule for 501(c)(3)s. In 2007, Americans United reported Falwell to the IRS for using school resources to endorse then-Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. And in 2015, Falwell allowed U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) to announce his candidacy for president at Liberty. Attendance was mandatory for students, and the event turned out to be a campaign rally. Once again, Americans United reported Falwell to the IRS.
Trump soon took his anti-Johnson Amendment message on the stump. Speaking to supporters in Jacksonville, Fla., Aug. 3, he said of the provision, “So we’re gonna get that taken out. Very important. And remember this also…we’re gonna get it taken out. It’s very unfair!”
Trump also began lining up churches willing to endorse him. Although Trump’s support in the African-American community is anemic – one poll showed it at 1 percent – he managed to win over a black church in Charlotte, N.C.
Antioch Road to Glory International Ministries held what it described as a “Day of Endorsement” for Trump Aug. 7. Among the speakers was Lara Trump, who is married to Trump’s son, Eric.
The church claims it has a right to endorse Trump. On its Facebook page, the church asserts, “We are NOT a 501(c)3 organization.”
Churches in the United States are considered tax-exempt as soon as they form; they don’t have to apply for that status. Americans United is skeptical of the church’s claim and is investigating the matter.
Unfortunately, Trump is not the only one seeking to at least alter the Johnson Amendment to benefit far-right churches. The issue is currently under consideration in Congress, as Republicans in the House of Representatives added a rider to an appropriations bill (H.R. 5485) that would make it so only the commissioner of the IRS can sign off on audits of churches. If this provision becomes law, it will be extremely difficult for the tax agency to enforce the Johnson Amendment.
As long as the tax code prohibits churches from engaging in politics from the pulpit, however, Americans United will be on the lookout for violations of that law. Since 1996, Americans United has reported more than 125 churches and ministries to the IRS for their political intervention through Project Fair Play.
The project also seeks to educate clergy. During major election years, AU sends thousands of letters to religious organizations informing them what pastors can and cannot do in terms of discussing politics, and encourages everyone to play by the rules so they don’t risk their tax exemption. (AU will do so again this year.) AU also engages clergy and others through training sessions so that Americans are clear on what the law does and does not allow.
This year there’s a new addition: AU is circulating a petition that calls on the IRS to enforce the law more aggressively in this area. (To sign the petition, go to projectfairplay.square space.com/petition)
As far as Americans United is concerned, the Johnson Amendment should be left intact.
“Changing current restrictions on church politicking,” Lynn told Time magazine recently, “will corrupt the church’s mission, violates the beliefs of many parishioners and creates another giant loophole in campaign finance.”
Will the Trump gambit work? The move may have already helped cement Trump’s ties with the evangelical community – although many were moving in that direction before Trump took up this crusade.
On July 21, Focus on the Family founder James C. Dobson issued a personal endorsement of Trump.
“Most evangelicals I know have decided for various reasons that they will really have only have one choice for president, and that is Donald J. Trump,” Dobson said. “I believe it’s a good choice. America needs strong and competent leadership.”
(Dobson has practically bent himself into knots trying to justify his support for Trump, a man who has in the past boasted about his extramarital affairs. In late June, Dobson began telling people that Trump had undergone a conversion experience and was “born again.” Dobson attributed Trump’s conversion to efforts by Paula White, a Florida mega-church pastor. Trump himself never claimed to be born again, and Dobson soon began stepping away from the remarks, at one point saying, “Only the Lord knows the condition of a person’s heart. I can only tell you what I’ve heard.”)
Trump’s efforts to repeal the Johnson Amendment are unlikely to excite average voters, most of whom don’t even know what it is. But that’s not Trump’s aim. He hopes that a massive evangelical turnout will help carry him to victory.
It’s a gamble, but Trump is known for taking on risks. We’ll know in a few months if this one was a good bet.
Remember, Americans United is sponsoring a petition urging the IRS to crack down on unlawful pulpit politicking. Please add your name today! Also, please share this petition with fellow supporters of separation of church and state.