On his first presidential National Day of Prayer, May 04, 2017, Donald Trump signed an Executive Order (which he may or may not have read) penned by an unknown author, hailed as a bold expansion of “religious liberty”. The Order, presaged by the president’s National Prayer Breakfast rhetoric, signals his administration’s dedication to breaking down barriers of separation between Church and State, elevating religious organizations as the entitled beneficiaries of unique exceptions and stunning privileges.
We see the beginning of this sad episode in the characteristically meandering, insensible, self-congratulatory transcript of Trump’s 2017 National Prayer Breakfast “speech” (if one may label it so charitably) which took a sudden, brief, focused, scripted turn a bit more than half-way through. After suffering his congregation of assembled theocrats to be reminded about the “enormous success” he brought to his reality show, The Apprentice -- an irrepressible wistful reminiscence of a time he actually understood his work -- and after pointing out the plummeting ratings the show experienced after the introduction of Arnold Schwarzenegger in his stead, Trump prattled anecdotally with less-than-half-thoughts about the friends and cabinet picks in attendance around him before saying something of significant interest:
“Our Republic was formed on the basis that freedom is not a gift from government, but that freedom is a gift from 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.”
This pandering promise was clearly meant as but a partial reimbursement to the hoards of reliably hypocritical evangelical “family values” lobbyists who, while still actively bemoaning the spiritual wound that former president Clinton’s illicit love affair brought upon the dignity of This Great Nation, were nonetheless still able to assemble their voters to find Christ’s emissary in a pussy-grabbing self-obsessed plutocrat (twice divorced).
The Johnson Amendment, named after then Senator Lyndon Johnson, and passed by Congress in 1954, is a federal law that prohibits tax-exempt organizations (including the religious) from “directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.” For religious tax exempt organizations which are not required to file a tax return Form 990, unlike charities and other nonprofits, this arrangement is the only stipulation in return for which they receive the enormous subsidy -- estimated by the Washington Post in 2013 to be at an annual amount of $82.5 billion -- of a tax-free existence.
The first important intended effect of the Johnson Amendment is that the American taxpayer does not subsidize the lobbying and funding of certain political parties. If religious organizations continue to withhold hundreds of thousands of dollars each year from the community, that money should not be used by politicians attempting to gain favor with a certain segment of the population.
Secondly, the inevitable outcome of allowing endorsements would be for wealthy political donors to filter their money through churches to gain further tax deductions. The pulpit would become simply a money filtering mechanism akin to money laundering for partisan politics.
(How the Johnson Amendment, by any stretch of the imagination, abridges “the right to worship according to our own beliefs” -- Trump’s stated concern in offering its repeal -- is entirely unclear.)
Evangelicals, naturally, feel entitled to the benefits of tax-exemption while also bemoaning the false sense of oppression by the restriction. The Alliance Defence Fund (ADF), a Christian Right political non-profit dedicated to dismantling the boundaries between Church and State, frames the issue entirely in the context of Free Expression, claiming umbrage on behalf of the persecuted Welfare Pastors who are unable to endorse candidates from the pulpit:
“The amendment [...] violates the Free Speech Clause by conditioning the receipt of a tax exemption on refraining from certain speech. Put simply, if a church wants the tax exemption, they cannot speak on any and all issues addressed by Scripture. This is an unconstitutional condition on free speech.”
What’s lost on the ADF is that the Johnson Amendment doesn’t place conditions on Free Speech, it places conditions on tax exemption, and any church is perfectly free to not seek tax exemption to remain politically active, which is what The Satanic Temple has done. Of course, as pointed out by no small number of observers, the Johnson Amendment has done very little to curb actual speech. Flaunting their refusal to accept any qualifiers upon the public assistance they feel entitled to, the ADF has called upon pastors to hold “Pulpit Freedom Sundays,” openly expounding Evangelically correct politics in hopes of creating a legal challenge.
Yesterday, Trump made such legal challenges unnecessary by instructing the Treasury Department to do nothing in response to churches and other tax-exempt institutions acting in support of political candidates. This renders the Johnson Amendment meaningless in lieu of an actual repeal of the Johnson Amendment, which would require an act of Congress.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation immediately filed suit against the administration, noting, “Among its several abuses, Trump’s order and statements signal to the Internal Revenue Service that it should not enforce the electioneering restrictions of the tax code against churches and religious organizations, while permitting these restrictions to be enforced against secular nonprofits. FFRF asserts the president has no constitutional authority to selectively veto a legitimate statute that Congress passed and a president signed into law more than 50 years ago.”
While short-sighted Evangelicals surely applaud this turn of events, some Catholics aren’t entirely convinced of its benefit. The National Catholic Reporter notes, “[r]epeal of the Johnson Amendment could prove very divisive for the Catholic church if bishops and priests decided to endorse candidates. Catholics are almost evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. Political endorsements could irreparably divide the church.” In fact, as Churches become beholden to percentages from political donors whose money they launder, rifts will surely grow ever-wider, and the tawdry marriage of American Evangelicalism and the Republican party will be entirely consummated with the question of who owns whom no longer containing any meaning at all.
Another byproduct of this turn of events, of course, is that The Satanic Temple must re-evaluate its prior principled refusal to accept religious tax-exemption. This position now confers a total advantage of “none”, while our theocratic counterparts trample over the Constitution and all it previously stood for. It appears that now is a time in which a more principled stand is to meet our opponent on equal footing, so to as balance, as best we can, what has been a frighteningly asymmetrical battle. As “the religious” are increasingly gaining ground as a privileged class, we must ensure that this privilege is available to all, and that superstition doesn’t gain exclusive rights over non-theistic religions or non-belief. With the religio-political landscape suddenly so grotesquely deformed from what we previously recognized, it seems reasonable that non-believers should adjust their language accordingly, and insist that atheistic and secular non-profits, advancing a distinct religious opinion and/or opinion upon religion, are themselves rightful beneficiaries of religious tax exemption as well.
Let us put the Evangelical dedication to “Religious Liberty” to the test.
The Satanic Temple is happy to lead that charge.
Yesterday's newsletter regarding The Satanic Temple's forthcoming veterans' memorial monument in Belle Plaine, MN contained an erroneous link to our crowd-funding campaign for the monument's construction, shipment, installation, and maintenance. Those wishing to contribute to the monument can do so here: https://www.generosity.com/memorial-fundraising/the-satanic-temple-veterans-monument/x/3532086