March 2017 Church & State - March 2017

Barriers To Progress: Another Wall That Trump Supports

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A few weeks ago on a television show, I mentioned that something “President Bush” was doing was completely inappropriate. The next day, I learned that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was being pilloried in conservative media for mistakenly referring to our current president as “President Bush” as well. I can’t speak for the minority leader, but I can chalk up my error to wishful thinking.

President Donald J. Trump didn’t take my advice in a column a few months ago to give a speech in which he agreed that he had been right in his pre-electioneering life by supporting reproductive choice and LGBTQ rights. During the major protests over his first few actions, including his Muslim ban, pro-Christian refugee favoritism and his efforts to appoint anti-reproductive choice nominees to cabinet posts, he seemed obsessively interested not in what his opponents were saying but only whether he had more people at his inauguration than at the Washington, D.C., women’s march.

Count me disappointed, or better, horrified. The conduct of this president is unlike anything I have seen in Washington in my many decades here. It is worse than the regimes of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush. They had extremely regressive views, but they didn’t have an interest in unraveling the entire framework of the country.

There is one pattern in the Trump administration’s plan that worries me more than any other. This could be described as “institutional manipulation to prevent things from getting any better in the future.” In other words, “Let’s deform the very entities that make change possible.”

At the National Prayer Breakfast, Trump vowed to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment, a federal law that precludes religious and secular charities from directly engaging in candidate advocacy. 

If religious organizations could endorse candidates, they would not be required to disclose where their money comes from or to whom it is transferred because churches don’t have to fill out the forms other charities do. If for example, one of the Koch brothers wanted to give $500,000 to a Republican candidate for state senate, he could report it on his tax form as a charitable contribution to a church, but the church wouldn’t have to report him as a major contributor nor reveal where that contribution went. Instead of cleaning up a broken campaign finance system, this would blow another giant hole in the system. So, if you think voting might change the outcome of future elections, this would be a major new impediment.

Trump’s choice for U.S. secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, was confirmed by one vote cast by the tie-breaking Vice President Mike Pence. DeVos is a huge advocate of tax subsidies to private schools and supports the president’s sought-after diversion of $20 billion of funding from public school into vouchers for private (primarily religious) schools, as well as for home schooling. 

DeVos is apparently unaware of the vast number of studies that show no academic improvement with vouchers. Her hostility to public education is similarly bold and largely wrong-headed: “Traditional public schools are not succeeding” and current educational policy is “a closed system … It’s a monopoly … It’s a dead end.” 

Can the courts save us? That depends on who is sitting on them. Neil Gorsuch has been nominated to fill the long-vacant seat of the late Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court. Crucial as that is, most cases never get to the Supreme Court. An analysis by Josh Katz of The New York Times noted that Trump enters office with a statistical likelihood of having 38 percent of all federal judicial slots open during his first term. (This compares to 29 percent for President Barack Obama and 21 percent for Reagan.) With no filibuster possible for lower-level judges, a dramatic reshaping of the judicial system seems likely. An institutional change like this can further impede progress.

Trump has also threatened to zero-out funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, an important federal initiative that brings music, plays and art to people who might not otherwise be able to experience these things. 

In summary, the future depends on less money in politics, a robust common school experience, a thoughtful judiciary and the learning that comes from being open to communication and art. Regrettably, Trump seems to be going out of his way to build a wall to the future (as well as the one he wants on the border), all while ignoring another wall – the one between church and state.


Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. 

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