Donald Trump sprinkles his stump speeches with profanity. He used to support abortion, and says he has never sought forgiveness from God for his sins. He memorably referred to Holy Communion – the Christian sacrament commemorating Jesus’ last supper – as drinking “the little wine” and eating “the little cracker.” He is the man of botched Bible verses and many wives, the business mogul who calls the Bible his favorite book, but when pressed he cannot name his best-loved verse. He says he likes the Old and New Testaments about the same. This is not the profile of an especially devout man, let alone a presidential candidate cut out to court Christian conservatives.
And yet national polls suggest that Donald Joseph Trump has forged a real connection with this voting bloc. But, I submit to you, this connection is based on a lie – a big lie.
How Trump deceives people of faith with falsehoods deserves especially close scrutiny. So here goes. What is Donald J. Trump’s big lie when it comes to conservative, evangelical Christians?
In his speech accepting the Republican nomination and more recently to a gathering in Orlando of around seven hundred conservative Christian pastors and their spouses, Trump told the lie that he has relied on throughout this campaign in reaching out to evangelicals. The federal government, Trump argues, has effectively muzzled religious conservatives – and he alone can save them. That statement is a lie.
Trump claimed that “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. I am going to work very hard to repeal that language and protect free speech for all Americans. 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…”
Well, Donald, no such law exists. The law (not an amendment) Johnson sponsored says something quite different.
Fact-checking Donald Trump has become a cottage industry this election cycle. Trump has been getting this fact wrong since February – one of many examples of him repeating falsehoods to win votes from evangelicals whose leaders evidently have not fact-checked him.
After vowing to go after journalists who write critical stories about him at a rally in Texas, Donald Trump bragged about the support his presidential campaign has received from conservative evangelical voters, touting endorsements from televangelist Paula White, Liberty University President Jerry Falwell, Jr., and Sarah Palin.
Trump even brought Robert Jeffress, a conservative televangelist, notorious for his anti-gay, anti-Roman Catholic and anti-Mormon preaching, onto the stage to sing his praises. Jeffress called Trump a patriot “who is truly pro-life,” unlike Hillary Clinton, whom he warned would be “the most pro-abortion president in history.”
“God bless Donald Trump,” Jeffress declared.
But Trump had a much bleaker message: “Christianity is under siege. Every year it gets weaker and weaker and weaker.”
He said he would restore Christianity to greatness by scrapping IRS regulations pertaining to church engagement in partisan political activity on behalf of candidates or campaigns.
Trump went on to say: “It makes you less powerful than a man or woman walking up the street. You actually have less power, and yet if you look at it, I was talking to someone, we probably have 250 million, maybe even more, in terms of people, so we have more Christians than we have men or women in our country and we don’t have a lobby because they’re afraid to have a lobby because they don’t want to lose their tax status.
“So I am going to work like hell to get rid of that prohibition and we’re going to have the strongest Christian lobby and it’s going to happen. This took place during the presidency of Lyndon Johnson and it has had a terrible chilling effect. “When I said that there has to be a temporary ban on certain people coming into this country, we have no choice, there’s something wrong, there’s something really wrong. And when I said ‘Muslim,’ I was met with furor. If I would’ve said ‘Christian,’ people would’ve said, ‘oh we can’t do anything about it.’ That’s going to end folks.
“We’re going to say ‘Merry Christmas’ now on Christmas. We’re going to start going to department stores and stores and you’re going to see big beautiful signs that say, ‘Merry Christmas and Happy Holiday.’ And we’re going to have a big, big, big lotta fun.”
Boy, is there is a lot to unpack here!
First, it is difficult to know what Trump means when he says that “we have more Christians than we have men or women in our country.”
Second, the part of the tax code Trump is speaking of was put into effect in 1954, not “during the presidency of Lyndon Johnson,” although as a senator he was behind the amendment instituting the policy. The law Trump referred to does not do what he says. It was enacted in 1954 when then Senator (not President) Lyndon B. Johnson proposed an amendment to a bill establishing an entirely new tax code. The Johnson amendment was so utterly without controversy that no debate took place in Congress. That law has been upheld by the United States Supreme Court ever since.
The law imposes only three limits on charities, including religious institutions, in return for the privilege of donors being allowed to deduct their contributions.
The first limit is that any surplus—what in business would be a profit—cannot go to any individual or shareholder.
The second limit states that propaganda and influencing legislation are allowed, but only as a minor activity, the limits on which Congress adjusts from time to time. The Supreme Court also upheld the second limit, that influencing legislation and propaganda must be a minor activity to qualify for charitable status, in a 1983 decision by the very conservative Associate Justice (later Chief Justice) William Rehnquist.
That unanimous ruling held that no First Amendment rights – of religion, speech, publishing, or assembly – are infringed by denying charitable status to organizations whose primary activities are influencing legislation and other political activities.
Churches are free to create a separate nonprofit organization under 501(c)(4) of the tax code that can have as its primary purposes propaganda and influencing legislation. Gifts to these organizations, however, are not tax deductible.
The third and most important limit is that charitable organizations cannot “participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”
Note that the limit is not about political views, as Trump has said, but about supporting candidates. Those are not synonymous, not even close.
Third, there are hundreds of interest groups who claim to represent Christians and even specific Christian denominations in America, proving that the IRS regulations did not have “a terrible chilling effect.” There is a Christian lobby, and it is called the American Christian Lobbying Association. There are also many Christian lobbyists in Washington and in the state capitals. Christians are not as powerless as Trump has been claiming.
Trump says he wants to create a powerful Christian lobby even as he promises to block Muslims from entering the country, including those serving in the armed forces. Trump may not know it, but that would violate the First Amendment, which ensures that each of us is free to worship or not as we choose. In saying this, his proposals are quintessentially un-American.
Fourth, it is hard to square Trump’s claim that he is a defender of religious freedom when also boasting that he wants to ban all of the world’s Muslims – over 1.6 billion people – from entering the United States.
Fifth, it seems unlikely that people would have shrugged if Trump said he wanted to ban Christians from the country.
Sixth, people still say “Merry Christmas” at Christmas time.
Over the past decade, political speech has become a rallying point for many conservative Christians, including the group Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative evangelical Christian legal organization, which encourages pastors to engage in “civil disobedience” to challenge the tax code. Given Trump’s ongoing campaign against political correctness, as well as concerns among conservative Christians over his bona fides on other issues, like abortion and same-sex marriage, it is no surprise that he made free speech for pastors his main appeal to that constituency.
There is only one problem with this appeal: It is a lie. Pastors and other religious leaders can, and do, already engage in political speech, including candidate endorsements.
The fact is that no United States law prevents church leaders from endorsing candidates. What the law does not allow is endorsing on behalf of a church or using church resources – such as making an endorsement from the pulpit during Sunday services – while also claiming tax-exempt status.
Church leaders can even endorse using church resources at any time; they are simply expected to forgo their tax-exempt status in order to do so. The First Amendment protects freedom of speech and free exercise of religion, but it does not provide a constitutional right to tax-exempt status.
Perhaps the best rebuttal to the idea that religious leaders operate under a clergy “gag” law is the fact that the Johnson Amendment is currently unenforced. So regardless of whether a pastor follows the tax code by separating his personal endorsements from his role with a church, the IRS is not investigating or penalizing churches for political speech.
You would have to go back to 2006 to find the last significant instance of the IRS investigating a church for political speech. In that case, it was the Bush administration’s IRS and the church in question was a liberal Episcopal parish in Pasadena, California that was probed after a guest preacher delivered a sermon questioning the morality of the Iraq War.
According to the Alliance Defending Freedom’s own numbers, more than 2,000 pastors connected to the group have reported preaching political sermons since 2008. Yet none of them has been probed by the IRS for political activity or had tax-exempt status revoked.
In one particularly memorable example from 2004, a Baptist pastor in North Carolina told his congregation that if they voted for John Kerry, they needed to “repent of their sin” or resign their church membership. Nine members were ultimately voted out of the church. But while the pastor himself ended up resigning because of the controversy caused by his leadership, the IRS never became involved.
None of this will come as much of a surprise to the nearly two-thirds of American churchgoers who report hearing their clergy discuss political issues, according to the latest survey from the Pew Research Center. Despite the old social rule that one should never discuss religion and politics in polite society, Americans have rarely shied away from combining the two subjects.
Nonetheless, Donald Trump continues to tell religious leaders that in order to protect their own freedom of speech, they “really now have a one-time shot.” If he is not elected, Trump warned, “you are never going to have a chance again.”
And, that is a lie. A big one at that.