President Trump’s vow to totally destroy the Johnson Amendment at the National Prayer Breakfast was an attack on the separation of church and state, and a big blow to efforts to get special interest money out of politics.
At the National Prayer Breakfast, Trump said, “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 I will allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution. I will do that. Remember.”
The Johnson Amendment is a piece of legislation that was passed in 1954 that did not allow religious organizations to, “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.”
There is a very good practical reason for this law being in place. Churches have tax exempt status. The amendment was passed, not as anything to do with the separation of church and state, but as a revision to the US tax code.
Conservatives have done, what President Trump did. They have rewritten history to turn the amendment into an attack by Lyndon Johnson on religious liberty. In reality, tax-exempt organizations are banned from electioneering.
What Trump is promising to do is lift that ban, so that churches get to both not pay taxes, and use funds for partisan political activities.
Trump can use executive orders, but he can’t overturn the Johnson Amendment on his own. He needs legislation for that to happen, and the odds of Democrats providing the number of votes needed for Senate passage are exactly zero.
The Johnson Amendment has become a matter of the separation of church and state. The elimination of the amendment would allow Republicans to tap into a slush fund of parishioner contributions from the evangelical right.
The change would give another special interest, even more, access to our campaign finance system.
What Trump vowed to do was an attack on the separation of church and state, and a further corruption of campaign finance laws.