Court Evangelicals Are About to Get Their Payback

John Fea, who chairs the History Department at Messiah College, came up with a name for the white evangelical leaders who continue to support Donald Trump no matter what he says or does. He calls them “court evangelicals”  who, “like the attendants and advisers who frequented the courts of monarchs, seeks influence.”

These court evangelicals want something in return for their support of Trump. That includes things like the “religious liberty” to discriminate and Supreme Court Justices who will overturn Roe v Wade. But I would suggest that their priority is for the president to fulfill his promise to get rid of the Johnson Amendment, which bars churches, religious organizations and nonprofits from specifically endorsing or opposing political candidates in order to keep their tax exempt status, while allowing tax-free donations to their organizations.

Here’s what Trump said about that at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2017:

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.

No matter what the president or any of these court evangelicals say, the Johnson Amendment doesn’t restrict anyone’s freedom of speech.

Churches have a choice between engaging in partisan political activity or enjoying the benefits of tax exemption, the Court ruled in Branch Ministries, Inc. v Rossotti, but “that choice is unconnected to plaintiffs’ ability to freely exercise their religion.”

As it looks right now, the court evangelicals are about to get their payback.

A handful of provisions tucked into a pair of must-pass bills under consideration in Congress this month could reshape the financing of political campaigns and give further cover to donors who want to keep their contributions private.

One measure would roll back limits on churches, which are prohibited under current law from advocating for candidates because of their tax-exempt status.

This provision is supported by most of the big names associated with white evangelicals, like Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell, Jr., and Robert Jeffress, along with several far-right organizations.

Also pushing hard to let churches engage politically are several powerful socially conservative groups at the vanguard of anti-gay and anti-abortion opposition. These include the National Right to Life Committee, Focus on the Family, the Susan B. Anthony List, and the National Organization for Marriage…

But they probably don’t represent a majority. In fact,  5,600 organizations and 4,300 faith leaders wrote Congress to oppose the Johnson Amendment’s repeal and to defend the charitable sector’s special nonpartisan status. Here is what the faith leaders said:

Faith leaders are called to speak truth to power, and we cannot do so if we are merely cogs in partisan political machines. The prophetic role of faith communities necessitates that we retain our independent voice. Current law respects this independence and strikes the right balance: houses of worship that enjoy favored tax-exempt status may engage in advocacy to address moral and political issues, but they cannot tell people who to vote for or against. Nothing in current law, however, prohibits me from endorsing or opposing political candidates in my own personal capacity.

Changing the law to repeal or weaken the “Johnson Amendment” – the section of the tax code that prevents tax-exempt nonprofit organizations from endorsing or opposing candidates – would harm houses of worship, which are not identified or divided by partisan lines. Particularly in today’s political climate, engaging in partisan politics and issuing endorsements would be highly divisive and have a detrimental impact on congregational unity and civil discourse.

Beyond bringing partisan politics into the church, this move will open the doors for dark money to flow through religious and charitable institutions on behalf of political candidates.

If the repeal of the Johnson Amendment is kept as a rider in the must-pass appropriation bills, it will likely pass and give these court evangelicals exactly what they want—the ability to become movers and shakers in the political world through an infusion of dark money to their organizations. Meanwhile, churches and charities will be viewed through the ubiquitous lens of partisan politics.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.