Trump Wants Pastors to Speak Out on Politics… But Can They?

Donald Trump (photo credit: Gage Skidmore)
Donald Trump (photo credit: Gage Skidmore)

Last June, I attended Donald Trump’s “secret meeting” with social conservatives in New York City. I was impressed then, and I continue to remain impressed with his commitment to the most important issues facing our country.

Unlike many Republican candidates who simply check the boxes when talking to social conservatives — yes, I’m pro-life; yes, I support religious liberty — Trump got creative and offered the out-of-the-box idea of repealing the so-called “Johnson Amendment,” a move few in the religious liberty movement had been actively pursuing.

The Johnson Amendment was introduced by then-Senator Lyndon B. Johnson in 1954 and passed into law. The amendment changed the U.S. tax code to block some tax-exempt organizations, including churches, from wading into politics and supporting one candidate over another. While the IRS hasn’t used its authority to strip churches that engage in politics of their tax-exempt statuses as of yet, the fact that the policy exists as law has been enough to intimidate many religious leaders away from preaching politics from the pulpit at all.

At the Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C., last month, Trump again pledged to repeal the Johnson Amendment if he wins.

Via CNN:

“The Johnson Amendment has blocked our pastors and ministers and others from speaking their minds from their own pulpits,” he said at the Values Voter Summit last month.

“If they want to talk about Christianity, if they want to preach, if they want to talk about politics, they’re unable to do so. If they want to do it, they take a tremendous risk that they lose their tax-exempt status,” he said. “All religious leaders should be able to freely express their thoughts and feelings on religious matters. And I will repeal the Johnson Amendment if I am elected your president, I promise. So important.”

It’s a relief to know that Trump will seek to protect religious freedom if elected. But in the meantime — and if Trump fails to win in November — will pastors and priests speak out? Can they do so without fear of government persecution?

Some are doing just that — consequences be damned.

Yesterday was “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” an annual initiative launched by the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) back in 2008. The goal of Pulpit Freedom Sunday is, according to Erik Stanley, senior counsel at ADF, “to restore a pastor’s right to speak freely from the pulpit without fearing government censorship or punishment.”

Jim Garlow, pastor at Skyline Church in San Diego, has been trying to bait the IRS into a lawsuit for years to challenge the Johnson Amendment in court:

“We record our sermons, as have many several thousands of pastors, and then send their sermons to the IRS in the hopes of provoking a lawsuit. But we have not been successful,” [Garlow] said.

And Tony Perkins, President of the Family Research Council, said he plans to keep speaking out as well:

“As a pastor, you have a biblical responsibility to speak to your congregation and help them understand the issues and how they line up with Scripture,” [Perkins] said. “We’re simply going down the list of biblical issues like life and human sexuality and marriage and speaking to what Scripture has to say and juxtaposing that with the positions of the candidates.”

Jon Schweppe is the Communications Director at American Principles Project.