Throughout the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump lied as easily as he breathed. Fact-checkers were bewildered and unable to keep up with the pace and brazenness with which Trump would just make shit up. Despite the cascade of falsehoods, voters across the country decided that having a liar-in-chief was perfectly ok. Most stalwart amongst Trump’s supporters were white evangelical Christians, as we have noted before.
The fact that conservative Christians were so eager to support a man with such a dismissive attitude towards truth and honesty was partially explained when President Trump signed an executive order telling the IRS to not investigate churches that openly support political candidates. What’s lying have to do with this? Let’s explore.
Churches (and other places of worship) have, since the early 1900s, been tax-exempt organizations. Similar to charities, houses of worship enjoyed certain benefits from the government, chief among them: they don’t pay taxes. And bonus: donations to the organizations are tax-deductible! That’s why you can write off any money you put in the offering plate, or give to organizations like Doctors Without Borders.
However, there was a catch. Since the government was subsidizing these organizations, they decided to put a few rules in place. The Johnson Amendment codified some of the IRS rules that were in place, noting, for instance, that certain tax-exempt organizations were prohibited from endorsing political candidates. This doesn’t stop organizations, including churches, from preaching about pertinent issues. For example, a church can describe how Jesus loved the poor and marginalized, and linking that message of love to the LGBTQ community today. But it would stop a pastor from formally endorsing, from the pulpit, a candidate like Hillary Clinton.
Before we go further, let’s be clear: no church, charity, foundation, or other entity is ever forced to become a tax-exempt entity. Any church can forego this status, and endorse all the candidates they would like. However, donations to those churches would be taxed, as would the organization.
In order to become a tax-exempt entity, an organization must fill out a form with the IRS. In this case, it is Form 1023. It’s a long form, but Section VIII, Question 1 asks this: “Do you support or oppose candidates in political campaigns in any way?”
The form specifically states, “Your answers should pertain to past, present, and planned activities.” Seems simple enough. But let’s take a look at the instructions. Hey, there’s a tip!
Wow! That’s pretty crystal clear. Tax-exempt organizations are “prohibited from supporting or opposing political candidates.” No room for misinterpretation here. Organizations, like churches, are prohibited from these activities.
Not only are they prohibited from endorsing candidates, but churches knew this when they applied for tax-exempt status. Churches and other tax-exempt organizations were fully aware of the law and their responsibilities when they requested a special tax-exempt status from the federal government.
Ok, let’s go back to the Trump Executive Order. Despite his megalomaniacal self-image, Donald Trump is not God. Nor is he a King. He does not have the power to change the law with an EO. So the Johnson Amendment remains the law of the land. What he can do is instruct the IRS to ignore the law, which is basically what this EO does (along with other horrible stuff; see this Rewire piece).
But the law still remains. And as awful as the EO is, it doesn’t change the fact that churches and other tax-exempt organizations gave their word that they would not endorse candidates. These organizations promised that they would not participate in certain activities. Further, the law against this activity remains unchanged.
I’m not a theological scholar, but I’m pretty sure that most churches have opinions about promising to act a certain way and then blatantly disregarding that promise. Many call it a sin. The Bible certainly does.
In the case we have before us, we have a President who has said that he will not punish a church for breaking their promise. But the question remains: are churches subject to man’s law, or God’s law? If churches decide to break their promise, what kind of message is that sending?
It’s pretty clear: they would be sending the same message that Trump has been sending for the better part of two years: honesty is dead. Honesty doesn’t matter. You can make promises and break them just as easily with no cost or consequence. Lie all you want, pastors would be telling their flock. Ninth Commandment is sooooo overrated.
It’s a sad day when religious leaders gather together to celebrate the death of honesty. Lying – from the government or to the government – should be considered by moral authorities to be a bad thing. One would think that churches would be on the forefront of the fight for honesty.
But as the election, and the celebration of this EO, shows, a whole lot of religious folks sure are willing to sacrifice their spiritual beliefs for earthly gains. Once you sacrifice your morals voting for a lying, cheating, sexual predator, there’s really no point in even pretending that you have any integrity to hold on to.
The celebration of the Christian right around this executive order shows that.