At National Prayer Breakfast, Trump Reiterates Intention to End Ban on Churches Endorsing Candidates

U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast February 2, 2017 in Washington, DC. Every U.S. president since Dwight Eisenhower has addressed the annual event. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast February 2, 2017 in Washington, DC. Every U.S. president since Dwight Eisenhower has addressed the annual event. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The Johnson Amendment restricts churches, in addition to many other non-profit organizations

At his first National Prayer Breakfast on February 2, President Trump reiterated a campaign promise — to repeal the Johnson Amendment:

Our republic was formed on the basis that freedom is not a gift from government, but that freedom is a gift from God. 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.

Contrary to Trump’s assertions, the Johnson Amendment doesn’t restrict the right of congregations to “worship according to our own beliefs.” Instead, it prohibits registered 501(c)(3) organizations — which include some religious congregations but also various other nonprofits, including organizations like the Clinton and Trump Foundations — from endorsing a candidate for public office and participating in political campaign activities. (Not all tax-exempt organizations fall under the 501(c)(3) designation, but most do.)

The president’s promise to “totally destroy” the amendment is consistent with his rhetoric throughout the campaign. And if he keeps it, it will have serious implications for campaigns in the future.

The Johnson Amendment repeal has consistently been one of Trump’s major promises to religious voters

The promise seems to have been introduced on June 22 when Trump met with hundreds of evangelical leaders in a closed-door meeting in New York City.

During that meeting, Trump made two promises to woo evangelicals:

The government has gotten so involved in your religion. Especially your religion, that it makes it very difficult. We’ll talk about that. Mike [Huckabee] and I have been discussing it, and I think we have some very important things to say. The next president — it’s going to be vital. Not only with Supreme Court justices, which we’ll also talk about at length. But also in things like freeing up your religion, freeing up your thoughts, freeing up your…

You talk about religious liberty and religious freedom. You really don’t have religious freedom, if you really think about it, because when President Johnson had his tenure, he passed something that makes people very, very nervous to even talk to preserve their tax-exempt status. It’s taken a lot of power away from Christianity and other religions.

I’ve seen it. … I said, “Why is it that the whole thing with Christianity, it’s not going in the right direction? It’s getting weaker, weaker, weaker from a societal standpoint?” And over the course of various meetings, I realized that there are petrified ministers and churches. They speak before 25,000 people, the most incredible speakers you could ever see, better than any politician by far. And yet when it comes to talking about it openly or who they support or why they support somebody because he’s a person — a man or a woman — who is into their values, they’re petrified to do it.

And I couldn’t get the answer. And then one day, at one of our meetings, somebody said, “They’re petrified of losing their tax-exempt status.” And I said, “What is that all about?” And they went into it. It was what happened during the Johnson administration. And I will tell you folks that some of you will agree, some of you will disagree, and some of you, it’s been ingrained and that’s the worst thing because you don’t even think about it. You can’t see the forest for the trees, some of you are so close to it. But I can tell you, I watched this during the last year, and I watched fear in the hearts of brave, incredible people. And we are going to get rid of that, because you should have the right to speak.

Here, Trump incorrectly says that Johnson passed the amendment while president. The amendment was passed by Congress in 1954, and Johnson, of course, didn’t serve as president until 1963. In 1954, Johnson was a senator, and he proposed this change to the tax code in part to keep certain tax-exempt organizations from endorsing or opposing candidates during the McCarthy era.

This issue resurfaced in Trump’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention on July 21, in which he talked about “an amendment, pushed by Lyndon Johnson many years ago, [that] threatens religious institutions with a loss of their tax-exempt status if they openly advocate their political views.” (We fact-checked his speech here.)

Then in a five-minute video that played in a number of evangelical churches on November 6, Mike Pence made a pitch to congregants for their vote, citing two main reasons to vote for his ticket: the promise to appoint justices to the Supreme Court “who will uphold our Constitution and the rights of the unborn” — in other words, someone with conservative views on religious freedom and abortion — and a promise to repeal the Johnson Amendment.

Mike Pence in his November 6 video, designed to pitch the Trump/Pence ticket to congregants in church.
Mike Pence in his November 6 video, designed to pitch the Trump/Pence ticket to congregants in church.

Here is how Pence describes it:

The Johnson Amendment has literally been on the books since the 1950s and it essentially threatens tax-exempt organizations and churches with losing their tax status if they speak out against important issues facing the nation from the pulpit.

Pence goes on to enumerate three moments in American history in which pulpits stood against tyranny: against King George III’s oppressive rule prior to the American Revolution, against the practice of slavery, and in favor of civil rights. It’s worth noting that there are plenty of examples of pulpits standing for said tyrannies as well, a matter Pence does not address. It’s also worth pointing out that the Johnson Amendment was passed during the early days of the civil rights movement, which complicates Pence’s third example as a reason to get rid of it.

Pence’s video has been removed from Vimeo but can be viewed on YouTube, and as of this writing it has been watched nearly 220,000 times.

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Alissa Wilkinson

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