May 4, 2017
Be careful what you wish for.
For years, the Christian Right, abetted by some Orthodox Jewish allies, has claimed that there’s a war on religion in America. Sometimes it’s the “War on Christmas,” sometimes it’s alleged persecution of Christians for practicing their faith, and sometimes it’s hard to articulate at all.
Well, today, the president of the United States bought into that rhetoric, and announced that he’s ending the war, signing an executive order that was heavy on symbolism and light on substance. Trump’s order focused on fake issues rather than real ones — good news for LGBTs and others who feared being targeted, but bad news for American Jews and other religious minorities.
On the substantive side, the Jewish backers of the action didn’t get anything they had wanted. No changes in funding for religious schools, no religious exemptions to allow discrimination.
But what we all got was an earful of gospel. In case there was any doubt about what “religious liberty” really means in a country that is 70% Christian, the audience in the Rose Garden got serenaded by Christian musician Steven Curtis Chapman (one of his songs was a setting of the Lord’s Prayer) and preached to by televangelist Paula White (who sells “resurrection seeds” for $1,144).
In fact, the one substantive change of note will probably come back to haunt American Jews. That was the effective repeal by Trump of the 1954 “Johnson Amendment,” which prohibits nonprofit organizations — including religious ones – from political campaigning.
Critics had characterized the Johnson Amendment as a gag order on pastors, prohibiting them from preaching about politics. That’s hogwash.
Not only does the law not prohibit political sermons, it’s almost never enforced against churches – the Washington Post hasn’t been found only one investigation in the last 10 years.
But with the Johnson Amendment gone (it’s still on the books, but Trump’s IRS will not enforce it), pastors and rabbis and imams will be under more pressure to be more explicitly political. That’s why most grassroots evangelical pastors actually opposed the change. Can you imagine, now that the gloves are off, rabbis endorsing American and Israeli political candidates from the pulpit? Or being pressured to do so by their biggest donors? It’s a disaster.