NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 11: President-elect Donald Trump speaks at a news cenference at Trump Tower on January 11, 2017 in New York City. This is Trump's...
Spencer Platt

Why Trump’s National Prayer Breakfast speech matters

Every year during Barack Obama’s presidency, the Democrat would make an appearance at the National Prayer Breakfast, where he’d deliver pensive, thought-provoking remarks about the depths of his Christian faith. And nearly every year, conservatives would express their outrage over the ideas the president challenged them to consider.

Donald Trump is clearly a very different kind of president, and his remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast captured an almost unrecognizable perspective.

For example, the Republican thought it’d be wise to reflect on his NBC reality show. “[W]e had tremendous success on ‘The Apprentice,’” Trump said, adding, “And they hired a big, big movie star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, to take my place. And we know how that turned out. The ratings went down the tubes. It’s been a total disaster and Mark will never, ever bet against Trump again. And I want to just pray for Arnold if we can, for those ratings, OK?”

Yes, the president used the National Prayer Breakfast to talk about television ratings for a reality show – which he remains the executive producer of – because everything at all times is about him and his career.

Trump went on to use inspirational rhetoric such as, “The world is in trouble, but we’re going to straighten it out. OK? That’s what I do. I fix things. We’re going to straighten it out. Believe me. When you hear about the tough phone calls I’m having, don’t worry about it. Just don’t worry about it.”

But there was a substantive element of the speech that probably mattered more than Trump’s embarrassing boasts:
“It was the great Thomas Jefferson who said, ‘The God who gave us life, gave us liberty.’ Jefferson asked, ‘Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?’

“Among those freedoms is the right to worship according to our own beliefs. That is why 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. I will do that, remember.”
For now, let’s put aside the complexities of Jefferson’s approach to religion and focus instead on Trump’s intentions to “totally destroy the Johnson Amendment.”

Circling back to our previous coverage, those who followed Trump’s campaign closely may recall his frequent references to the Johnson Amendment – a policy of great concern to the religious right movement and evangelical Christians, but something most of the country has probably never heard of.

So, what is it? Under current federal tax law, tax-exempt houses of worship are not allowed to intervene in partisan political campaigns. Ministries can obviously speak out on moral and spiritual issues of the day, and can even get involved in ballot referenda related to various policies, but churches and other houses of worship can’t take steps to help (or hurt) candidates or political parties.
 
This law was created in 1954, thanks to the efforts of then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson, and for the most part, it hasn’t been especially controversial.
 
But as the religious right movement became a more prominent fixture in Republican politics, the Johnson Amendment became problematic. Efforts to create a political machine involving pastors and congregations were stunted by the law – because if a religious leader can’t tell his or her congregation who to vote for without risking the ministry’s tax-exempt status, the movement’s potency has limits.
 
And so the religious right decided the Johnson Amendment has to go. It even came up with an argument that seems vaguely compelling at first blush: those who lead houses of worship should be able to say whatever they wish to their congregants, and it’s not the government’s job to intervene. The First Amendment’s free-speech protections, the argument goes, should be applied to ministers in the pulpit.
 
What’s wrong with that argument? Quite a bit, actually.
 
As we discussed a couple of years ago, when it comes to electioneering and tax law, houses of worship have effectively made a deal with the government: the pastors will enjoy the benefits of a tax-exemption, and in exchange, their ministry will be non-partisan.
 
Trump is saying he wants to scrap the deal: the churches should get the benefit of a tax exemption from the government, without any of the conditions.
 
As for the First Amendment, note that tax-exempt entities, including churches, have the option of getting engaged in partisan politics, endorsing candidates, and intervening in campaigns to their hearts’ content – but they can’t do this while keeping their tax exemption.
 
Why does Trump want to change this? Basically because the religious right told him to. But why does the religious right want this? Because some on the right still dream of creating a church-based political machine.
 
The consequences could be dramatic. Imagine the campaign-finance mess that would exist if parties, candidates, and PACs could funnel campaign donations through tax-exempt churches, free of oversight.

That’s the system the Republican is vowing to create, and it matters more than the latest unfortunate joke about “The Apprentice.”


Donald Trump

Why Trump's National Prayer Breakfast speech matters