There’s a deal that the United States offers certain kinds of corporations, corporations that form not for making a profit or pursuing their own narrow interest but rather purposes that are:
- testing for public safety,
- fostering national or international amateur sports competition, or
- preventing cruelty to children or animals.”
That list is quoted from the Internal Revenue Code 501(c)(3), a portion of federal law that says organizations set up exclusively for such purposes don’t have to pay federal income. If your organization is not set up exclusively for such purposes — if your organization intends to do other things in addition, like rake in profit or engage in politicking — then it doesn’t qualify for tax exemption under 501(c)(3), by the very definition of Section 501(c)(3).
The modern version of this law was set up over half a century ago by then-Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson through the Johnson Amendment, which declared that organizations seeking to file under Section 501(c)(3) could not, as a condition of their application under such section, engage in political campaign activity to promote or oppose candidates for political office. Organizations that wanted to engage in activity to promote or oppose candidates for political office can still form; they just don’t qualify as tax exempt. As the Supreme Court explained in its 2000 decision Branch Ministries v. Rossotti, to grant politicking organizations tax-exempt status would be an act of government to subsidize their political activities with a tax break.
On Thursday, December 8, Donald Trump spoke to a crowd in Iowa, making a promise to repeal the Johnson Act and allow government subsidy of political activity, particularly for Evangelical Christians:
“Evangelicals, I love you! Evangelicals. We had such great help: the pastors, the ministers. We had such great help. And I won’t go into great detail, but we will get rid of the Johnson Amendment, okay? I promise you. The Johnson Amendment is a disaster.”
The way it is now, religious groups are free to engage in politicking, but they aren’t free to get a tax break from the federal government as a form of welfare to subsidize their political activities. Under Donald Trump, religious groups — in Donald Trump’s eye, particularly Evangelical Christians — would be given a subsidy to turn themselves into political wings of particular candidates’ campaigns.
Government subsidy of political religion would mark a huge change in the relationship between church and state. You’d think Donald Trump’s promise on Thursday would qualify as news, but not one mainstream news organization reported on Trump’s remarks.
That’s not to say that the news media entirely ignored Donald Trump’s promise on Thursday. Christian news media outlets — Christian Broadcasting Network News and the Christian Post enthusiastically reported the news to their followers on Thursday. Government subsidy of religious politicking is big news for Evangelical Christians and a big promise by President-Elect Trump, and ignoring that relationship would be a big mistake.