President Trump’s Thursday executive order, supposedly reining in the power of the IRS to monitor political advocacy by tax-exempt faith communities, reportedly is causing some alarm among those who think it doesn’t go far enough.
In practical terms (at least for now), it doesn’t go anywhere. And people of faith — a substantial majority of Americans — should not be in the least alarmed about that. Indeed, if it is truly and sincerely faith that is the issue, we should be relieved.
Timed to coincide with the National Day of Prayer, the president’s order was the latest, and highest-level, official action in the name of “religious freedom” — a phrase that has become less and less about religion, more and more about political posturing, and in no way whatever about freedom.
At issue is a 63-year-old law that bars tax-exempt charitable organizations — a category that includes, but is not limited to, religious organizations — from endorsing, financially supporting or campaigning for political candidates. It does not, nor should it, prohibit faith communities and religious-affiliated organizations from weighing in on public policy matters.
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The law, which as many people know was signed by Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower and passed by a Republican Congress, came about after then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson, D-Texas, was slandered by nonprofit organizations as a communist. The primary focus was not on religious organizations per se, but on any tax-exempt organization that engaged in open political advocacy.
The so-called Johnson Amendment has been fully invoked exactly once. A Conklin, N.Y., church took out a full-age newspaper ad urging Christians to vote against Bill Clinton, an act of electioneering so inappropriate, on so many levels, it’s hard to imagine anyone arguing with the IRS cracking down on it, or a federal court upholding (as it did) the agency’s decision.
Anybody who doubts how much wiggle room there is in the law needs only to look around at some of the multimillion-dollar “religious” empires for whose public support politicians are willing to go — literally — on their knees.
Nor do we even have to look to places so public or powerful as those to know that political advocacy in what are supposed to be spiritual sanctuaries is commonplace. It happens all the time. Some faith community officials and lay leaders are anything but subtle in their willingness to turn ostensibly doctrinal messages into blatantly political ones that are endorsements in everything but name — if indeed they even stop there. And for every bit of unabashed “religious” politicking that becomes public, no one really knows how much more of it doesn’t — except, perhaps, in the form of votes.
The president said no one should be “censoring sermons,” which no one was, not even the one time in 63 years the law was invoked. But creating a threat, promising to defend us from it, then declaring success when the threat never materializes (because it never existed in the first place) is a political ploy as old as politics itself.
The IRS law is supposed to prevent allegedly religious organizations from becoming nothing more than tax-exempt PACs — vehicles for purely political money raising and laundering … in the name of God. A more cynical distortion of the spirit of religious freedom is hard to imagine. (From a Judeo-Christian perspective alone, it essentially tosses Commandments 1, 2, 3 and 9 into the ditch.)
Nowhere on this planet is true freedom of faith more engraved in tradition, spirit and law — including laws like the one that has stood since 1954 — than in this great nation. The gravest threat to American religious freedom is still what it has always been: Politicians vowing to “protect” it.