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The politics of “religious liberty”

The politics of “religious liberty”

President Donald Trump signed an executive order on “religious freedom” yesterday. Still, many on the religious right and left are unimpressed.

Leaders representing the religious right don’t think his actions go far enough. Those on the left worry about governmental meddling in religious preaching and action. The ACLU decided not to contest the order in court because in their view it actually changes nothing. So why all the hoopla?

For all the hype over the alleged restrictions of the Johnson amendment, no one from the government is censoring sermons.  And when the FBI and Department of Justice monitored preachers, they were civil rights, peace activists, or Muslims.


For years after Sept. 11, the New York Police Department—with significant help from the CIA—monitored bookstores, restaurants, and nightclubs in Muslim neighborhoods and placed informants, known as “mosque crawlers,” in places of worship, where they reported on sermons and recorded the license plates of innocent congregants. (The program was notoriously ineffective, and the NYPD settled two lawsuits over this conduct earlier this month.) Other reports show that the Department of Homeland Security—an agency founded to protect against terror attacks—has been tracking Black Lives Matter activists. If you name a prominent civil rights leader of the 20th or 21st centuries, chances are strong that he or she was surveilled in the name of national security.

But the idea that the culture in general and the government specifically is persecuting mainly white, middle-American evangelicals has been a meme of that movement for a long time. So that’s the context for yesterday’s ceremony. The strange part is that it is built on myth.

Adelle Banks writes in RNS:

The peculiar thing is that no one is censoring sermons or targeting pastors. Pastors can—and do—preach about abortion, immigration, sexuality, war, economic inequality, the environment, and beyond, taking positions all along the political spectrum. Two days before the election, many churches screened a video during Sunday services of Mike Pence promising that he and Trump would repeal the Johnson Amendment. None of them have lost their tax-exempt status for doing so.

The lack of persecution is not for lack of seeking it out. Since 2008, a conservative nonprofit has sponsored an annual “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” in which pastors deliver politically charged sermons and mail recordings in to the IRS in hopes of provoking a lawsuit. Around 2,000 pastors have participated annually in recent years, but the IRS has audited just one church and punished none. Only one church has ever lost its tax-exempt status because of the Johnson Amendment, and notably, it had nothing to do with sermon content. An upstate New York church took out full-page ads in several major newspapers in 1992 urging Christians not to vote for Bill Clinton. That meant tax-exempt money was being used to purchase political advertising. (Indeed, the primary practical effect of today’s order is that churches can now serve as a funnel for tax-deductible campaign donations, as my colleague Dahlia Lithwick explains.)

That may be why almost no one other than Trump seems to care much about the Johnson Amendment. The very narrow issue of whether pastors can endorse politicians is simply not what “religious freedom” means to most religious people. A February survey of evangelical leaders found 89 percent believe pastors shouldn’t endorse candidates; a larger survey of evangelical pastors in 2012 found virtually the same results. Ross Douthat tweeted on Thursday morning that the topic “has literally never come up” in his years of conversations about religious liberty with leaders of religious institutions.

Which is why yesterday’s executive order, which doesn’t change the law but only directs the IRS and other agencies on how (not) to enforce it, is at once an act of showmanship and a dangerous act of political pandering.

Yet even before the carefully orchestrated event was over, Trump’s grand gesture toward his religious base appeared to falter as a matter of policy, and perhaps as politics: Social conservatives who had been expecting much more, and much sooner, expressed sharp disappointment, and the order itself seems unlikely to have much real impact on current laws and regulations.

“[C]onstitutionally dubious, dangerously misleading, and ultimately harmful to the very cause that it purports to protect,” David French wrote in a blistering analysis in National Review. “In fact, he should tear it up, not start over, and do the actual real statutory and regulatory work that truly protects religious liberty.”

Different groups, representing different shades of political and religious thought released statements both supporting and criticizing the move.

All the talk of religious freedom is largely designed to protect the ability of businesses and others to discriminate in the name of religion.

The chief concern is that while the order itself does little, it hardens divides and stifles conversation. As the Very Rev. Randy Hollerith, dean of Washington National Cathedral, says:

“Easing the restrictions of the Johnson Amendment has the potential to deepen the ideological divides in this country and fracture congregations, not bridge them. This move will politicize churches, distract us from our intended mission and further polarize the people we are attempting to unite.”


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Rod Gillis
John Rabb

The late William Sloane Coffin noted in the 1980s what is the challenge for those of us in “mainline” or more liberal churches. He cautioned against trying to separate out faith from politics because God is engaged in all aspects of life. Rather he stated we state our positions theologically and challenge those with whom we disagree on the same. The Johnson Amendment is not the issue, but the moral courage to state boldly and clearly what it is we are called to do and be. We shadowbox around politics when we should be proclaiming the Gospel. Yes, we may disagree but a truthful dialogue is better than using political or legal covers.

Bob Button

The potential repercussions are staggering. If tax-exempt organizations are allowed to fully participate in the political process, including funding, then why not donate directly to a church instead of to the political party? You literally get to deduct not only your charitable contributions but your political contributions as well. At 39.6% top tax rate, this can add up. And your political contribution will be anonymous as it is the church that writes the check to the candidate, not you. Not good.

David Allen

So it isn’t the permission to discriminate against LGBTQ folks that flower vendors, cake shops, wedding venues and jewelry stores were expecting!

Nor landlords, hoteliers, taxi drivers, sports clubs, bathroom vigilantes, etc, etc, etc.

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