Watchdog: Does Trump executive order free ‘bullied’ pulpits?

The scene last year as thousands attended a rally at the Georgia Capitol organized by evangelist Franklin Graham. The rally was part of Graham’s Decision America Tour 2016. TAYLOR CARPENTER / TAYLOR.CARPENTER@AJC.COM

The scene last year as thousands attended a rally at the Georgia Capitol organized by evangelist Franklin Graham. The rally was part of Graham’s Decision America Tour 2016. TAYLOR CARPENTER / TAYLOR.CARPENTER@AJC.COM

Last week, President Donald Trump signed an executive order following up on campaign promises to loosen restrictions on churches’ involvement in politics and chipping away at a 63-year-old federal ban on endorsements from the pulpit.

“We will not allow people of faith to be targeted, bullied or silenced anymore,” Trump said the day of the signing, which corresponded with the National Day of Prayer.

The order instructs the executive branch, but especially the Treasury Department, not to penalize any person or institution that “speaks or has spoken about moral or political issues from a religious perspective” where similar rhetoric has not been considered “participation or intervention in a political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) a candidate for public office.”

So what, if anything, does that mean?

The order targets the so-called Johnson Amendment, the part of federal tax law that forbids tax-exempt institutions from, among other things, directly endorsing political candidates. Those who violate the edict risk, in theory, their church’s federal tax exemption.

But anyone who follows American politics knows that religion and politics mix all the time. Last February, Christian evangelist Franklin Graham held a rally outside the state Capitol, drawing thousands to hear him blast gay marriage, transgender rights and other "sins of our nation." The rally came a day after the New Hampshire primary, won by then candidate Trump.

“Your vote counts,” Graham told the crowd. “It matters. We need the Christians to vote all across this country.”

Almost a year later, former Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders stood behind the pulpit at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in an event to honor Martin Luther King Jr. and exhorted the crowd to action.

“Real change comes not from the top down, but when millions of people stand up and fight for justice, ” he said. “It’s necessary for us to bring his spirit and courage into 2017.”

Sanders was joined by The Rev. Michael Pfleger, a Catholic priest from Chicago, who called the president out by name for Trump’s Twitter rant against U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Atlanta.

“Shame on you, Mr. Trump, on this weekend to disrespect an icon of the civil rights movement, ” Pfleger said. “You, Mr. Trump, have made yourself the anchor of fake news.”

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders spoke during the 49th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Service at Ebenezer Baptist Church Monday, January 16, 2017, in Atlanta. PHOTO / JASON GETZ

icon to expand image

Mark Goldfeder, a senior fellow at Emory University’s Center for the Law and Religion, said current federal law is problematic. First, it has constitutional problems because of its inherent limits on speech, but it also has practical issues because it is a vague prohibition that is not enforced by the federal government.

“Pastors are breaking it on a weekly basis,” he said, sometimes unintentionally, “depending on the news cycle that morning.”

Faith leaders as lobbyists

Despite the new heat around political speech from religious corners, this is nothing new. Religious leaders and groups regularly engage in political speech, generic and specific. In Georgia, various Judeo-Christian sects even have lobbyists registered to pressure state lawmakers on any number of topics relevant to their faith.

The Georgia Baptist Mission Board, the state affiliate of the Southern Baptist Convention and the state's largest religious denomination, is represented by Mike Griffin, whose full-time gig is as senior pastor for Liberty Baptist Church in Hartwell, but who spends legislative sessions as a registered lobbyist.

The Southern Baptists lobby legislators regularly to oppose things like gambling and marijuana legalization and to pass things like pro-life and religious liberty bills. Griffin is a regular presence at the Capitol on these and other issues, testifying on bills or holding press conferences to get the Southern Baptists' policy perspectives in front of the public.

Despite his deep involvement with politics (he even ran an unsuccessful campaign for a seat in the state House), Griffin praised Trump’s order as a needed improvement.

“We definitely think it is in line with First Amendment rights regarding churches and we do believe that churches have a right to determine (their) level of involvement,” he said. “First Amendment rights do not end at the pulpit.”

Actual incidents of enforcement of the Johnson Amendment over the decades are as rare as hen’s teeth. In fact, thousands of clergy intentionally violate the Johnson Amendment as part of a protest called the “Pulpit Freedom Movement,” yet The Washington Post reports a decade of such protests has not brought a single IRS penalty on any of the churches or pastors involved.

But Griffin said the existence of the federal ban has long had a “chilling effect” on political speech from the pulpit.

“The rank-and-file of pastors and churches are very shy to speak out from the pulpit,” he said. “It has gotten so bad in our day that some ministers will not speak out on moral issues.”

‘Mostly symbolic’

Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, a Washington-based group aligned with mainline Baptist churches, said both the executive order and the chilling effect of the Johnson Amendment are overblown.

“On its face the order looks to be mostly symbolic. It’s hard to see what the real practical difference will be on the IRS’s enforcement of the political ban,” she said. “The IRS has not been actively enforcing this provision despite quite a bit of provocation.”

Outside of conservative, evangelical Protestant circles, religious leaders appreciate the protections the Johnson Amendment provides against political interference in matters of faith, she said.

Some fear a weakening of the wall between campaigns and congregations would set up faith organizations to become targets of “dark money” political donations, a way to influence political speech by making contributions to churches with ministers willing to violate the ban. Those contributions would be both hard to trace and tax-deductible themselves.

The Baptist Joint Committee was one of 99 faith organizations to sign a letter protesting the executive order.

Mike Griffin (left) and Tom Rush, lobbyists for the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, are regulars among the lobbying corps during the General Assembly’s annual legislative session. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Credit: Bob Andres

icon to expand image

Credit: Bob Andres

Fallout: churches splintering?

However, if Trump’s order merely reinforces the current IRS approach to scofflaws, Tyler said the real battle will be in Congress if the president and his allies make a serious attempt to repeal the Johnson Amendment.

“The religious community by and large is opposed to endorsing candidates from the pulpit,” she said. “If the laws change you are going to have enormous pressure from campaigns and donors associated with these campaigns.”

There’s some reason to believe that the Johnson Amendment has provided a shield for ministers looking to protect their congregations from fracturing as a result of earthly political disputes. It’s a real possibility, as anyone who comes from a city with a “Second Baptist Church” can attest.

Goldfeder, the Emory fellow, said there is little doubt that a true repeal of the Johnson Amendment would be felt at the church level.

“People have relied on the Johnson Amendment to keep their churches together,” he said. If pastors are pressured to endorse candidates from the pulpit, portions of their congregations will be alienated as a result.

“It is possible that the real fallout of this will be churches splitting,” Goldfeder said.