At the National Prayer Breakfast, an annual event held in Washington D.C. by the Christian organization The Fellowship Foundation, Trump pledged to eliminate the legal barriers preventing religious based organizations from having political involvement within the U.S. government.
“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,” Trump told the many attendees of the Prayer Breakfast, including politicians, priests, and other members of the Christian church.
This was a promise which was most likely targeted not at “representatives of faith” but specifically Evangelical Christians. This group aided Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign in hopes that he would take the steps to allow church involvement in the government. A 2014 survey found that 76% of white Evangelicals are or lean Republican, and 2016 exit polls showed that 4 out of every 5 voted for Trump in the election. In total, white Evangelicals make up one-fifth of all Republican registered voters.
So what exactly does the Johnson Amendment do? The amendment, which has been in place since 1954, has been responsible for limiting the political involvement that tax exempt organizations can have within government activities, especially campaigns for office. This doesn’t necessarily withhold pastors from speaking for or against certain political views in their sermons, or prevent them from backing nonpartisan voter activities or voter registration drives. In fact, the law is very loosely upheld; in 2000, Reverend Jerry Falwell of the Genoa Baptist Church in Ohio preached, “vote for the Bush of your choice… we simply have to beat Al Gore.” Within the same year, a Bronx pastor who supported the 2000 Hillary Clinton campaign replaced “Satan” with her opponent’s name during a hymn.
The main risk churches face when they become politically involved is the loss of their tax-exempt status. Christians have deemed this ever-looming threat as a restriction of freedom of speech–however the amendment has been challenged three times (in 1983, 1990, and 2000) and has yet to be repealed. Abolishing the amendment requires direct approval from Congress, though the president has the power to order the IRS in disregarding the rule.
Trump believes that freedom of religion is under serious threat, saying that “The first thing we have to do is give our churches their voice back. It’s been taken away.” Gaining political support from Christian Evangelical organizations may make it easier for Trump to push federal acts such as the defunding of Planned Parenthood, which is directly linked to the Christian/Republican/pro-life ideal that life begins at conception. The main takeaway from Trump’s new promise should be that repealing the Johnson Amendment is less about freedom of religion and more about increasing Christian influence in the government.