Politics & Government

Trump wants religion and politics to mix, but Congress is reluctant

President Donald Trump, accompanied by television producer Mark Burnett, points to the crowd during the National Prayer Breakfast, Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017, in Washington.
President Donald Trump, accompanied by television producer Mark Burnett, points to the crowd during the National Prayer Breakfast, Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017, in Washington. AP

President Donald Trump vowed Thursday to “totally destroy” a measure that bars houses of worship from endorsing political candidates, and eager Capitol Hill conservatives are ready to fight for him. But they’re unlikely to get the votes they need.

Trump called for an end to the so-called Johnson Amendment, a 1954 measure authored by then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson of Texas that prevents tax-exempt entities such as churches, mosques and synagogues from participating in political activities such as endorsing or opposing particular candidates.

“I will do that, remember,” Trump told the National Prayer Breakfast, a bipartisan event attended by about 3,000 people, including many powerful Washington insiders.

Trump has a big hurdle. He’ll need 60 Senate votes to overcome a filibuster. Democrats control 48 of the Senate’s 100 seats, and 60 votes are needed to cut off debate. And Republicans have bigger priority.

“We’re in this heated environment that if anyone from one party says it’s a good idea, then it’s immediately a bad idea to the other party,” said Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla.

“It’s time we’re going to be a little tough, folks,” President Donald Trump told the audience at the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday. “We’re taken advantage of by every nation in the world virtually. It’s not going to happen anymore.”

Abolishing the amendment has been an important priority for years among religious leaders – especially those with conservative leanings – who say their houses of worship live in fear of having their tax-exempt status yanked by the Internal Revenue Service for politicking from the pulpit.

Trump made repealing the amendment a centerpiece of his pitch to evangelical voters during his presidential campaign. Republicans made scuttling the amendment part of the party’s platform at their convention in Cleveland last July.

For years, a handful of congressional lawmakers have been trying to do away with the amendment and gotten nowhere. Thanks to Trump’s support, repeal supporters are energized.

“I think this is the best opportunity we’ve had since I’ve been involved in this,” said Rep. Walter Jones, a North Carolina Republican who’s been introducing repeal legislation since 2001.

Advocates for the separation of church and state fear that Trump’s focus on getting rid of the Johnson amendment may prompt lawmakers to give it more serious consideration than it’s ever received in Congress.

“It clearly has ramped up the threat level,” said Rob Boston, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

I see it as just another campaign promise Trump will try to follow through on. I’m not sure it will have enough support to get it done.

Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher, Rothenberg and Gonzales Political Report

Richard Land, president of the Southern Evangelical Seminary near Charlotte, North Carolina, said the political environment created the perfect storm to repeal the amendment: Trump is in the White House, Republicans control both chambers of Congress and there are 10 incumbent Senate Democrats who’ll seek re-election in 2018 in states that Trump won last November.

“You have a significant number of Democratic senators who are up for re-election in 2018 in states that Mr. Trump carried with significant margins,” said Land, a member of Trump’s 25-person Evangelical Faith Advisory Board. “My guess is their constituencies . . . want the Johnson amendment killed. Of course, when they’re up for re-election, that has a way of sharpening their attention.”

Rev. Franklin Graham closed out Friday’s inauguration of President Donald Trump by saying his prayer was that God would bless the new president, his family, his administration. It started raining as Trump began his inauguration speech.

Still, a serious move to kill the amendment is hardly assured. Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., head of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, said repealing the Johnson amendment wasn’t a top priority.

“I think it’s too early to tell what gets repealed, what doesn’t get repealed,” Meadows said. “I think right now, most of the focus is on tax reform than the subtleties of some of the other issues. So I would say the probability is not high only because there are different priorities right now. But that’s not to say it’s nonexistent.”

Then there are Senate Democrats, few of whom are expected to back the measure.

I’ve been in the room when he’s been speaking, and on three occasions he’s said, ‘I’m going to get the Johnson amendment repealed.’ . . . This is a priority for him.

Richard Land, Trump adviser, president of Southern Evangelical Seminary

Jones introduced his 2017 version of the bill in January and followed it up with a conversation earlier this week and letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.

Flanked by religious leaders, Lankford and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., announced Wednesday that they’ve introduced a so-called Free Speech Fairness Act that would amend the tax code and allow charitable organizations to make statements relating to political campaigns if the comments are made in the ordinary course of the organization carrying out its tax-exempt purpose.

The House of Representatives and Senate measures are largely a reprise of a bill that Scalise introduced in the last Congress.

“What this bill does is simply open things up again and says to nonprofits, ‘You can speak as you choose to speak. No IRS individual is going to come and monitor your speech,’ ” Lankford said Wednesday.” Let me tell you it does not do: It does not turn nonprofit institutions into campaign organizations. . . . It takes away the IRS standing in the back of a church waiting for what a pastor says.”

Americans have mixed views about houses of worship delving into politics. A 2014 Pew Research poll found that almost 60 percent of Republicans think churches should be able to express their political views, while 42 percent of Democrats agreed.

However, only 38 percent of Republicans and 28 percent of Democrats thought that houses of worship should endorse political candidates.

A 2016 Pew poll of Americans who attended religious services found that 14 percent had heard clergy speak for or against one of the presidential candidates.

Nearly 1 in 10 churchgoing Americans – 9 percent – said they had heard clergy speak out in favor of Democrat Hillary Clinton, while 1 percent said they had heard clergy speak favorably of Trump.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story gave the wrong number of votes required in the Senate to end debate and the wrong number of seats in the Senate. It takes 60 votes to cut off debate in the 100-member body.

William Douglas: 202-383-6026, @williamgdouglas