By Adi Chowdhury
“Trust me, the repeal of the Johnson amendment will create a huge revolution for conservative Christians and for free speech.”
These words were uttered by Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of the notoriously pseudo-scientific and evangelical Liberty University . Falwell is an avid advocate for creationism and has amassed quite a reputation for the eyebrow-raising textbooks he propagates to further his evangelical agenda. He has recently been appointed by Donald Trump to be the leader of a higher educational reform committee.
(Just as a cursory glance at Falwell’s background on issues such as education, here’s an excerpt from a Right Wing Watch article that details how Liberty University students are taught to respond to evidence for evolution:
“I pray that you help me to teach effectively and help the students to learn and defend their faith,” he [a Liberty University professor] says.
“Creationism and evolutionism have different ways of explaining the evidence. The creationist way recognizes the importance of Biblical records,” said Liberty University professor Marcus Ross.
He teaches his students that dinosaurs were wiped from the face of the Earth some 4,000 to 5,000 years ago during the Biblical flood that Noah survived by building an ark.
He says carbon-dating techniques that have been used to suggest the Earth is in fact billions of years old are simply not reliable.
The article also describes how some students are amenable to flat-out rejecting the notion of evolution and simply denying that evolutionary scientists “know anything.”)
But that’s beside the point. What matters today is the remark made by Donald Trump at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington:
“Our republic was formed on the basis that freedom is not a gift from government, but that freedom is a gift from God. It was the great Thomas Jefferson who said the God who gave us life gave us liberty. Jefferson asked, “Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?” 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 allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution. I will do that. Remember.”
For those not familiar with the Johnson Amendment, this may not seem to startling. But here’s a brief overview of what this Amendment promises, explained by The New York Times:
“It is one of the brightest lines in the legal separation between religion and politics. Under the provision, which was made in 1954, tax-exempt entities like churches and charitable organizations are unable to directly or indirectly participate in any political campaign on behalf of, or in opposition to, any candidate. Specifically, ministers are restricted from endorsing or opposing candidates from the pulpit. If they do, they risk losing their tax-exempt status.
Considered uncontroversial at the time, it was passed by a Republican Congress and signed into law by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a Republican. Today, however, many Republicans want to repeal it.”
NYT also describes the Johnson Amendment as “a restriction for churches and non-profits”, since it ensures that tax-exempt churches may not infuse their ideologies into politics.
However, Trump’s vow to destroy the Amendment will blur the lines between church and state, and provide a platform for preachers and priests to push their evangelical agendas to sway the American public–without paying a dime in taxes.
Some — including the current President of the US — have asserted that the Johnson Amendment restricts freedom of speech by stripping churches of their voice, forbidding them to express their take on politics. But the situation isn’t so. The churches still have the full freedom of worship and the freedom to practice and promote Christianity. They just can’t interfere in the political landscape if they want to remain free from taxes.
Also, this doesn’t just apply to churches. It applies to all tax-exempt establishments, such as programs that are “religious, educational, charitable, scientific, literary, testing for public safety, to foster national or international sports competition, or prevention of cruelty to children or animals organizations,” according to Internal Revenue Services (IRS). These are known as 501(c)(3) organizations, and include many secular charities as well.
And here’s a foreboding warning from The Atlantic:
“If the Johnson Amendment were repealed, pastors would be able to endorse candidates from the pulpit, which they’re currently not allowed to do by law. But it’s also true that a lot more money could possibly flow into politics via donations to churches and other religious organizations. That could mean religious groups would become much more powerful political forces in American politics—and it would almost certainly tee up future court battles.”
And these “court battles” may include future cases relating to LGBT rights, creationism in schools, reproductive rights, and separation of church and state. Repealing the Johnson Amendment impacts not only the political structure of America, but also the domains of human rights, education, and perhaps– given America’s sprawling cultural influence– the social landscape on a global scale.