At a right wing religious gathering this morning, Donald Trump stood up and announced that he plans to allow churches to be used as money laundering operations for corrupt politicians.
First, Trump suggested that Christianity, rather than the Constitution, is the highest law of the land. Then, Trump went after the Johnson Amendment.
Trump declared, “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.”
One would think, listening to Donald Trump, that religious Americans don’t have “the right to worship” as they choose, and that Christian preachers cannot “speak freely and without fear of retribution”. Actually, that’s not the case at all. When Donald Trump said these things, he was lying. As Christians might put it, Trump was bearing false witness.
The truth is that the Johnson Amendment, which was signed into law by Republican President Dwight Eisenhower does not restrict the way that churches conduct religious worship. Neither does the Johnson Amendment interfere with the right of Christian preachers to speak freely.
Under the Johnson Amendment, churches and other religious organizations are free to endorse candidates for public office. Under the Johnson Amendment, churches could construct altars featuring golden statues of Donald Trump if they wanted to. Under the Johnson Amendment, Christian churches could even hand out Trump re-election pamphlets and organize their members to volunteer for Trump campaign fundraising events.
The only thing that the Johnson Amendment restricts is the ability of churches to do any of these things while simultaneously claiming tax exempt status and refusing to contribute to the financial welfare of the nation. That’s it.
Here’s why this restriction exists: Tax-exempt organizations are, in effect, sponsored by the federal government. They’re given all kinds of special financial privileges that for-profit businesses and American families don’t get.
Political campaigns don’t get the privilege of tax-exempt status because they’re all about promoting the power of already powerful individuals. They’re not in the public service, as non-profit organizations, including churches, claim to be. If churches become de facto campaign organizations, and retain their tax exempt status, then American taxpayers will be financially subsidizing politicians.
It’s also extremely important that political campaigns be as free from corruption as possible. For American democracy to function properly, wealthy families and corporations can’t be allowed to make big payments to political candidates in exchange for special favors. If churches are allowed to function as campaign organizations while retaining tax exempt status, they will become easy conduits for bribery – and the crooks who pay the bribes will be able to write off their payoffs in order to avoid paying income tax.
If Christians want to allow their preachers to wallow in moral corruption, that’s their business. When churches ask to be made into political power brokers with a unique ability to funnel bribes to powerful elected officials, it’s a problem that affects everyone. To prevent such problems is the reason the Johnson Amendment exists.
That protection against corruption is what Donald Trump is seeking to remove as he works to “get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment”.