An amendment to the tax code was introduced by then Senator and Democratic Minority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson in 1954.
This legislation prohibited nonprofit organizations from involvement in partisan politics at the risk of losing their tax-exempt status.
When adopted by the Republican majority in Congress and signed by Republican President Eisenhower, this new law became known as the Johnson Amendment.
Now, President Trump wants to fulfill his campaign promise to repeal the law, which he says restricts the rights of faith-based organizations to speak politically.
It seems, however, the motivation behind Trump’s efforts is not so much championing free speech for U.S. citizens as it is securing their freedom to promote him and his candidacy in their churches.
The ultimate target for Trump’s obsession may actually be even larger.
In the same way that Sen. Johnson’s amendment had to be ratified by Congress, overturning it must be voted by Congress. Such legislation has not yet been passed.
Thus, at the National Prayer Breakfast earlier this year, Trump again promised, “I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment.”
Yet, he and some of his supporters are acting as if the Johnson Amendment – as well as the 1791 First Amendment to the Constitution, which provides for the separation of church and state – are already overturned.
First, the president pretended so when he walked across Lafayette Square on June 1 to stand before St. John’s Episcopal Church and hold up a Bible for the cameras.
Without asking permission of the diocese or the leadership of St. John’s itself, without mentioning his regret over the damage the historic church building had sustained the previous day, without expressing a prayer for peace in this divided nation or reading any verse of Scripture from the Bible he held aloft, Trump appealed to his conservative Christian voters in a conflation of church and state that defied the Johnson Amendment.
Reactions were swift.
Some Christians were incensed. Michael Curry, presiding bishop and primate of the Episcopal Church, said Trump “used a church building and the Holy Bible for partisan political purposes.”
Other Christians were delighted. They praised the president, extolling his actions as evidence he wasn’t hiding in a White House bunker but instead bravely walking outside the grounds in a show of strength.
Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, exulted that “[Trump’s] presence sent the twin message that our streets and cities do not belong to rioters and domestic terrorists, and that the ultimate answer to what ails our country can be found in the repentance, redemption and forgiveness of the Christian faith.”
But Reed and other apologists were tricked by the image. What Trump needs to do is uphold the Bible, not just hold it up.
Second, in Phoenix on June 23, Trump attended his second “post-COVID-19” rally, hoping to recover momentum after his defiant but disappointing Tulsa outing. The mega-sized Dream City Church was the venue for a Students for Trump event.
Some 3,000, mostly unmasked, young Republicans crowded into rows of seats close to one another to wait several hours for their hero to appear.
When he did walk on stage, clearly savoring the thunderous applause, Trump’s speech was scattershot but typically partisan and petty.
In this sanctuary, originally designed as a space for encountering the Spirit of God, a political candidate had been welcomed.
Using their megachurch facilities as a campaign stop for this president, despite potential pushback, was a risk worth taking for Dream City Church’s leaders.
Senior Pastor Luke Barnett and Associate Pastor Brendon Zastro posted a video stating the church had installed an air-filtration system that could kill “99.9% of COVID within 10 minutes.”
Their claim was quickly refuted by city health officials, but their dream of notoriety for the church still had traction.
“Thank God for good technology,” Barnett said. Regrettably, he didn’t rely on God for good judgment.
Third, on June 28, Vice President Mike Pence spoke at a star-spangled Freedom Celebration Rally at First Baptist Church of Dallas.
The 2,200 in the sanctuary greeted not only Pence, but also other Republican officials including Gov. Greg Abbott, Sen. John Cornyn and HUD Secretary Ben Carson.
In a “worship service” clearly designed to aid Trump’s reelection campaign, the Baptists sang patriotic songs, waved hundreds of American flags and even broke into chants of “USA, USA.”
Senior Pastor Robert Jeffress, praising Pence, assured him First Baptist folks hope he will become president in 2024.
For his part, Pence orchestrated applause for Jeffress, claiming the pastor was “so precious to your president, to your vice president and to all who serve our nation in the White House.”
I suspect “useful” would have been a more accurate word than “precious.”
These are just three examples of how the president is challenging the Johnson Amendment and attacking a treasured provision of the Bill of Rights: in Washington, where Trump used a church for his own political gain; in Phoenix, where a church used Trump to advance its own celebrity; and in Dallas, where Pence on behalf of Trump used the church to promote the president’s political campaign and where Jeffress on behalf of the church used the vice president to make national headlines and the evening news.
Viewing all of this, a thought comes to mind. What if the administration were as concerned about the First Amendment as it is about the Second?
Professor emeritus of theology and missions from Logsdon Seminary and former chair of trustees for the Parliament of the World’s Religions. He and his wife Janie were missionary teachers in Indonesia for almost a quarter century.