Religious smoke and mirrors

 President Donald Trump orchestrated what turned out to be little more than a photo op recently when he signed an executive order on religious freedom.

Rather than gutting a 63-year-old law that restricts political activity by churches, Trump’s order basically restates how the so-called Johnson Amendment has been interpreted since it was ushered through Congress by then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson: Churches, if they want to retain their tax-exempt status, can speak out on political issues as long as they don’t endorse or oppose specific candidates.

After the signing ceremony, in which the president was surrounded by a number of religious leaders, several liberal groups announced that they would not be filing a lawsuit against Trump’s order as they initially anticipated. After reading what the order actually said, they concluded there was no point in suing, as the order doesn’t really change anything, despite the president’s promise a couple of months earlier to “totally destroy” the law. The executive order was all smoke and mirrors, signifying nothing.

Besides, getting excited about the Johnson Amendment, whether for or against, is pointless, as the law has been almost never enforced. There is just one known case, in more than six decades of the law’s existence, in which the IRS has revoked a church’s tax-exempt status for getting too politically involved.

The truth is, despite few enforcement actions, the law is routinely violated, and not just by Republican-oriented churches. If anything, in the South, where there is a longstanding tradition among African-American churches of being the locus of political activity in their communities, the Johnson Amendment is either sidestepped or downright ignored more regularly by Democratic-leaning congregations and their pastors than Republican-leaning ones.

The Johnson Amendment is actually a friend to most churches. It gives them a legal out, if they want it, to resist pressure from politicians and their friends to get involved in election contests. By staying neutral, they avoid the risk of fracturing their congregations, some of which might take offense at turning the pulpit into a political stump.

Trump’s order maintains the status quo. It keeps in place a law that appeases those who believe in the strict separation of church and state, yet leaves the same law toothless for those who don’t. Everyone should be happy, except those who feel strongly about the promise.

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