Trump throws social conservatives a bone

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Pulpit Freedom, by Stephen Alcorn

Greenberg Center

Pulpit Freedom, by Stephen Alcorn

Right to life, who cares? Same-sex marriage, no problemo. The contraception mandate? Never heard of it.

If you were a social conservative, Donald Trump’s acceptance speech had to leave you crying in your diet Coke. After all you’ve done for him this election season what you get is a pledge to defend LBGTQ rights from radical Islamic terrorism? Sheesh.

Actually you did get something. You got the one item on your agenda that Trump actually seems to care about. In his own words: “An amendment which, by Lyndon Johnson, many years ago, threatens religious institutions with a loss of their tax-exempt status if they openly advocate their political views. I am going to work very hard to repeal that language and protect free speech for all Americans.”

A more coherent version of this was incorporated into the GOP party platform this year:

We value the right of America’s religious leaders to preach, and Americans to speak freely, according to their faith. Republicans believe the federal government, specifically the IRS, is constitutionally prohibited from policing or censoring speech based on religious convictions or beliefs, and therefore we urge the repeal of the Johnson Amendment.

Actually, that’s not very coherent either. In 1954, then Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson got a law passed that permits the IRS to lift the tax exemption of non-profit organizations which directly or indirectly participate in, or intervene in, “any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.”

In other words, the only speech that’s censored — to the extent that the threat of being taxed counts as censorship — is candidate advocacy. Pastors are perfectly free to speak about political issues (including ballot initiatives) all they want based on their religious convictions and beliefs.

But pretending otherwise has been a good issue for the Alliance Defending Freedom, the religious right outfit formerly known as the Alliance Defense Fund that has been sponsoring something called Pulpit Freedom Sunday since 2008. They claim that since then a couple of thousand pastors have violated the Johnson Amendment by preaching election day sermons.

Trump knows a deal when he sees it. Give the Alliance what it wants and — voila! — millions of sermons for Donald Trump! A win-win for America.

Actually, as many pastors as want could preach as many sermons for Trump as they want with impunity right now, since the IRS has stopped enforcing the Johnson Amendment against election day sermons. But if the Amendment is repealed, as Trump and his party want, then every non-profit in the country will be free to support and oppose candidates for elective office. Then the Man of the Hour might discover that the deal wasn’t really as good as all that.