The United States has, since its founding, been a nation that held tightly to its religions. At the same time, our founding fathers built in special provisions to keep those beliefs as far away from governing as possible. Throughout history, there have been those who have attempted to remove those protections and impregnate our laws with religion. As we move further into 2018, the real question is after centuries of precedent and decades of progress how far are Donald Trump and the GOP willing to push our government toward theocracy?
There have already been unsettling signs on this front.
In March of 2017, leaders of four major organizations that represent the nearly 23 percent of nonreligious Americans sent a joint letter to President Trump encouraging him to remain engaged with the nontheistic community—a policy of engagement that had been adopted by the Obama administration. To date, the Trump administration has not replied.
If you look at the May 2017 signing of his “Presidential Executive Order Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty,” you see hints that nontheistic organizations will most likely never have a seat at Trump’s table. While many agree that the order was nothing more than a dog whistle to evangelical members of his base, the underlying intent is painfully clear: to bolster their unfounded fears and beliefs that somehow religion is under attack in America. At the heart of those delusions is the Johnson Amendment, the 1954 law that stipulates nonprofits had to stay out of politics to maintain their tax-exempt status.
“Christian compassion has given way to dominionism, and the separation of church and state is facing unprecedented challenges in the face of Christian Nationalism.”
Trump had previously promised to “totally destroy the Johnson Amendment.” At the announcement of the signing, he added, “I’ve gotten rid of the Johnson Amendment…I signed an executive order so that now … ministers and preachers and rabbis and whoever it may be, they can speak. You know, you couldn’t speak politically before, now you can.” He also stated “this executive order directs the IRS not to unfairly target churches and religious organizations for political speech…no one should be censoring sermons or targeting pastors. We are giving our churches their voices back.” While in all actuality the Johnson Amendment didn’t deny anyone the right to speak, it only said they couldn’t officially endorse or oppose any one candidate explicitly while maintaining their tax-exempt status.
“It isn’t hyperbole to say that the Trump administration’s push to repeal the Johnson Amendment’s ban on church politicking will change the face of politics forever,” says American Atheist president David Silverman. “This is Citizens United on steroids. The most ridiculous part of the whole thing is that the vast majority of religious leaders, including evangelicals, don’t want this change. They don’t want their congregations to be the next battleground in American politics.” He tells Playboy that a coalition of more than 4,500 nonprofit leaders, 6,500 religious leaders and more than 100 denominations’ leaders oppose changing this rule.
Silverman fears that Trump’s real motive is to turn churches into “Super Pacs,” saying that churches, while still tax-exempt, are free from the most basic transparency requirements. Silverman said, “repealing the Johnson Amendment’s prohibition on politicking would allow a billionaire to donate as much money as he wants to a local church for the purposes of supporting a candidate for city council, state government or federal races and we would have no way of knowing about it.”
While the ACLU saw little threat from Trump’s executive order, the Freedom From Religion Foundation filed suit. In their lawsuit, the FFRF states that the order “requires the IRS to selectively and preferentially discontinue enforcement of the electioneering restrictions of the tax code against churches and religious organizations, while applying a more vigorous enforcement standard to secular nonprofits.” They believe that the order is a direct violation of the Establishment Clause and are suing to have an injunction placed against the IRS to prevent them from implementing this new order. Additionally, a provision in the December Republican tax bill that would have gutted the Johnson Amendment was blocked by Democrats from the final bill—a move lauded by those who support church-state separation.
While the President’s tactics are transparent, they are also to be expected. He has a history of openly targeting minority groups that are misunderstood and distrusted by his base. A recent study concluded that atheists are the most disliked “religious minority” in the U.S. That alone makes them the perfect target for Trump and the GOP.
According to Silverman, Trump has re-legitimized the far right and energized the hateful. He says “Christian compassion has given way to dominionism, and the separation of church and state is facing unprecedented challenges in the face of Christian Nationalism.” He also believes that under this administration the dangers facing the atheist population are both “wide and sweeping.” Silverman tells Playboy that the threats range from a rise in “emboldened hatred against us [atheists],” to government-sponsored bigotry in the guise of “religious freedom.”
As long as Trump and his administration continue, in the words of Silverman, “blowing holes in civil rights protections for LGBT people, women and atheists,” the nonreligious community will again find itself shut out of a discussion on religion’s role in America. “Having a seat at the table is everything,” he adds.
No matter your religious affiliation, one needs to pay close attention to what is happening here. The occupant of the Oval Office should not be the deciding factor in who enjoys all the freedoms under the Constitution. The situation brings to mind an old saying my grandmother often used, “there but for the grace of God go I.”