Thursday, June 23, 2016

Pandering to religion, Trump style -- June 23, 2016 column


Before the 2012 election, businessman Donald J. Trump made wild, false accusations that President Barack Obama was a Muslim and not a citizen.

So it’s hardly a surprise that candidate Trump questioned Hillary Clinton’s religious faith.

“We don’t know anything about Hillary in terms of religion,” Trump told evangelical leaders Tuesday. “She’s been in the public eye for years and years and yet there’s no – there’s nothing out there.”

That’s ridiculous. Clinton, a church-goer, doesn’t wear her faith on her sleeve, but she does talk about it.  

In January, when a voter in Iowa asked Clinton about her faith, she began a lengthy response with, “I am a person of faith. I am a Christian. I am a Methodist. I have been raised Methodist. I feel very grateful for the instructions and support I received, starting in my family but through my church…”

Courting evangelical leaders, Trump followed his slam on Clinton with a pander. He promised to appoint Supreme Court justices who oppose abortion. In a Trump administration, he said, department store clerks will say “Merry Christmas” again. And he will end the ban on political campaigning by tax-exempt churches.

“I think maybe that will be my greatest contribution to Christianity – and other religions – is to allow you, when you talk religious liberty, to go and speak openly, and if you like somebody or want somebody to represent you, you should have the right to do it,” he said.

Trump, who also wants to change the libel laws so he can sue news outlets, either doesn’t understand the Constitution or has little regard for it.

The ban against politicking applies to any tax-exempt charity -- secular nonprofits as well as houses of worship.

Religious leaders can and do endorse candidates – just not from the pulpit. They also can support ballot measures and take stands for or against issues. They can run non-partisan voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives.

Since Thomas Jefferson wrote approvingly on Jan. 1, 1802, that the First Amendment had built “a wall of separation between church and state,” Americans have been arguing over religion and government.

Conservatives have railed against the politicking ban for decades, claiming that it limits pastors’ free speech. Rep. Walter B. Jones Jr., R-N.C., has made repeal his pet issue, but his attempts have gone nowhere.

We have Lyndon B. Johnson to thank -- or blame -- for the ban. In 1954, the senator from Texas introduced the ban in an amendment to the IRS Code. The measure was so uncontroversial it passed by unanimous consent, reflecting agreement that tax-exempt groups should not be overtly partisan.

While historians disagree about Johnson’s motives, it seems clear he wanted to stop groups – not churches – that were critical of him as he ran for re-election from sending campaign materials to voters.  

Congress has strengthened the ban over time. To qualify for 501(c)3 tax-exempt status, a church or charity may not “participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”

Despite what Trump says, the ban has not stopped religious leaders from speaking up about their candidates of choice. Several ministers have endorsed Clinton.

Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., son of the late televangelist, endorsed Trump last January. But the nonprofit university, which calls itself the largest Christian university in the world, does not endorse candidates, Falwell says.

The IRS rarely has revoked a church’s tax-exempt status, but it did after Church at Pierce Creek in upstate New York took out full-page ads in USA Today and The Washington Times four days before the 1992 election.

“Christians Beware. Do not put the economy before the Ten Commandments,” read the headline. The ad urged people not to vote for Bill Clinton and solicited tax-deductible donations to pay for the ad. A federal appeals court upheld a lower court’s ruling backing the IRS.

There’s a simple solution for churches and other tax-exempt groups that want to electioneer, and it has nothing to do with Trump. They can give up their tax- exempt status.

©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


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