Trump’s Promise To Totally Destroy The ‘Johnson Amendment’ Is A Good One
President Trump, at the National Prayer Breakfast, attracted some media coverage with his declaration that he would fulfill his campaign promise to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment. That is a provision of the tax code prohibiting religious bodies and nonprofits from engaging in politics. This law had been pushed through by then U.S. Senator, later president, Lyndon Baines Johnson as, according to the New York Times, a political bludgeon against a rival candidate.
Trump sounded a clear trumpet.
Left-leaning commentators expressed trepidation.
Not so fast!
One if by Land, Two if by Sea! These words were coined by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his poem immortalizing the “midnight ride” of Paul Revere. Revere rode to warn the Americans of the British troops headed to what would enter history as the first military action in the War of Independence, the “Battle of Lexington and Concord.”
As it happens, the signal lanterns were raised in the steeple of Boston’s Old North Church. One could therefore well and truly say that America was born in a confluence of Church and State.
The populist conservative movement may be preparing to rally behind President Trump in a new way. Welcome the arrival of the Spiritual Justice Warriors, an initiative being spearheaded, in part, by the Trump Revolution USA. One of its leading online community organizers, William R Collier, Jr. (one of my right-leaning colleagues), there writes:
Our President and his team are under full on assault. I don’t mean the Obama shadow government people, the media, the Never Trumper, and all that. The assault comes from Hell itself. It manifests in the hearts and mouths of foolish men and women who know not what they do.
They rally with violence.
We will rally… with prayer.
Prayer indeed can be a powerful form of political action. In his speech to the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington on February 2, President Trump declared:
I want to thank the American people. Your faith and prayers have sustained me and inspired me through some very, very tough times. All around America, I have met amazing people whose words of worship and encouragement have been a constant source of strength. What I hear most often as I travel the country are five words that never, ever fail to touch my heart. That’s: “I am praying for you.” I hear it so often — “I am praying for you, Mr. President.”
It was the great Thomas Jefferson who said, “The God who gave us life, gave us liberty.” Jefferson asked, “Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?”
Among those freedoms is the right to worship according to our own beliefs. That is why 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.
The day after the speech The New York Times helpfully explained the Johnson Amendment:
It is one of the brightest lines in the legal separation between religion and politics. Under the provision, which was made in 1954, tax-exempt entities like churches and charitable organizations are unable to directly or indirectly participate in any political campaign on behalf of, or in opposition to, any candidate. Specifically, ministers are restricted from endorsing or opposing candidates from the pulpit. If they do, they risk losing their tax-exempt status.
Considered uncontroversial at the time, it was passed by a Republican Congress and signed into law by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a Republican. Today, however, many Republicans want to repeal it. …
Back when Lyndon B. Johnson was a senator from Texas, he introduced the measure as an amendment to the tax code in 1954. Like many things Johnson did, the goal was to bludgeon a political opponent, in this case a rival in a primary who had the backing of nonprofit groups that were campaigning against him by suggesting he was a communist. Though there was no church involved, according to PolitiFact, churches were covered by the bill as well.”
Yes, you read that right, “Like many things Johnson did, the goal was to bludgeon a political opponent.” This amendment to the tax code also bludgeoned one of our most essential — it comes before freedom of speech and the press — Constitutional rights: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….”
I am a retired lawyer and know the Constitution very well. The First Amendment was enacted, in part, to prohibit Congress (later extended to the States) from bossing religion around or preferring one to another or forcing religiously serious people to violate their conscience. Somewhere along the way the government pounded this Constitutional shield into a sword to use to politically marginalize the religious, especially traditionalist religions like Catholics, Evangelical Christians, and Mormons.
That’s a scandal.
“A wall of separation between Church and State” is a direct quote from a letter from President Jefferson to a Connecticut Baptist congregation unequivocally promising them that the government would not go around bullying them. It was not meant to inhibit religion from the sphere of politics.
You can read Jefferson’s letter here. It’s short and sweet and exalts the rights of conscience. I wrote about it here at the Huffington Post. If you wish to drill down into the primary sources and scholarship:
Jefferson’s public support for religion appears, however, to have been more than a cynical political gesture. Scholars have recently argued that in the 1790s Jefferson developed a more favorable view of Christianity that led him to endorse the position of his fellow Founders that religion was necessary for the welfare of a republican government, that it was, as Washington proclaimed in his Farewell Address, indispensable for the happiness and prosperity of the people. Jefferson had, in fact, said as much in his First Inaugural Address. His attendance at church services in the House was, then, his way of offering symbolic support for religious faith and for its beneficent role in republican government.
Jefferson was all about keeping the state “within its well-appointed limits.” He was never about letting the government go around hippie-punching Christians (or any other faith) for engaging in politics. To say otherwise is pure revisionist history.
Jefferson was by no means alone. President Washington, in his Farewell Address, explicitly exalted religion:
Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity.
Before the Constitution the signal lamps for Paul Revere’s famous ride were hung in the steeple of Christ Church in Boston: One if by land, two if by sea!
Churches were at the political fore of the abolition of slavery.
The Civil Rights movement was largely prosecuted by pastors like the Rev. Martin Luther King.
The first federal nondiscrimination order, signed by President John F. Kennedy, prohibited federal discrimination on the basis of creed (whose primary dictionary meaning is religious).
With authentic respect for Social Justice Warriors, Spiritual Justice Warriors represent an old and noble tradition going all the way back to the Bible. The Prophets thundered against iniquity, holding the Kings — the politicians of the day — to account. Whether one condemns inequity or iniquity, “The mere politician … ought to respect and to cherish” those who take a stand for the “indispensable supports” of religion and morality.
We have all pledged allegiance to the republic for which our flag stands, “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Spiritual Justice Warriors and Social Justice Warriors both would do well to applaud President Trump when he declares that he will “tear down that wall,” the Johnson Amendment, that inhibits religious institutions from engaging politically.
Originally published on Forbes.