Credit: Don McCullough/Flickr

On November 10th, Franklin Graham (son of evangelist Billy Graham) wrote a Facebook post saying that, with the election of Donald Trump, “God’s hand intervened…to stop the godless, atheistic progressive agenda from taking control of our country.” In the lead-up to the election, Graham had travelled the country holding political rallies that were thinly veiled promotions of Trump’s candidacy.

Graham couldn’t come out and publicly endorse the Republican candidate because his salary and the expenses for those rallies were supported via donations to his non-profit organization, Samaritan’s Purse. Since 1954, federal law has stated that churches and non-profit organizations that qualify for tax exempt status are “prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.”

Today Donald Trump plans to sign an executive order that will instruct the IRS to basically ignore that law.

Mr. Trump’s executive order on political activity, which he will sign while hosting conservative religious leaders, tries to overcome a provision in the federal tax code that prohibits churches and other religious organizations from directly opposing or supporting political candidates.

Officials said Mr. Trump will direct the Internal Revenue Service to exercise “maximum enforcement discretion” so that religious organizations and other nonprofit groups are not subject to punishment for expressing political views during campaign seasons.

As you can see from the one example of Franklin Graham, this law did not really subject religious organizations to punishment for expressing political views during campaign seasons. It simply stopped them from overtly endorsing a particular candidate as long as they maintained their tax exempt status. Even that veneer of a limitation could be overcome by giving up that status.

So what is the big issue here? The executive order the president will sign today isn’t really so much about “religious freedom,” as it is being framed by Trump and the religious right. This is actually designed to further erode one of the remaining restrictions on campaign finance.

Because Franklin Graham was at the White House last night celebrating this executive order with the president, let’s use him as an example. To the extent that the IRS ignores this statute, Graham will be able to accept tax-free donations to Samaritan’s Purse (or another non-profit he might set up) that will go towards endorsing and advocating for the political candidates of their choice. That will likely make Franklin Graham a major player on par with the Super PACs in American politics.

But the same will be true for any church or other non-profit organization. How big is that universe? Here are the numbers according to the Urban Institute:

  • Approximately 1.41 million nonprofits were registered with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in 2013
  • The nonprofit sector contributed an estimated $905.9 billion to the US economy in 2013, composing 5.4 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).
  • In 2014, total private giving from individuals, foundations, and businesses totaled $358.38 billion, an increase of just over 5 percent from 2013 after adjusting for inflation.

I would suggest that those numbers are about to increase substantially after Trump signs this executive order. That is why three Senate Democrats—Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), and Bob Casey (D-Pa.)—are sounding the alarm.

“Proposals to weaken the prohibition on political campaign activity by charities will effectively lead to the elimination of our nation’s campaign finance laws,” the senators wrote in a letter to Republican congressional leaders, claiming that a relaxation of the prohibition would allow charitable causes to be used, “as shell companies to evade campaign finance transparency and contribution limits would increase the flow of dark money in politics.”

Don’t buy into the lie that this executive order has anything to do with so-called “religious freedom.” It is all about people like Franklin Graham wanting to become king-makers in our politics and undermining the remaining vestiges of our campaign finance system to do so.

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