President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Thursday partly geared towards making it easier for religious leaders to preach politics — even though most religious Americans oppose that idea.
Trump stood before the Rose Garden this morning to declare that his new executive order on “religious liberty” would include a provision instructing the IRS to dial back its enforcement of the so-called Johnson Amendment. The amendment, which is part of the U.S. tax code, prevents houses of worship and other non-profits from engaging in explicit political action such as endorsing a candidate, lest they lose their tax-exempt status.
“In just a few moments, I will be signing an executive order to follow through on [my] pledge [to] prevent the Johnson Amendment from interfering with your First Amendment rights,” he said. He later added: “We do not fear people speaking freely from the pulpit, we embrace it.”
“We are giving our churches our voices back. And we’re giving them back in the highest form,” he said. “With this executive order, we make clear that the federal government will never ever penalize any person for their protected religious believes.”
The future impact of the order is somewhat unclear, but repealing the Johnson Amendment has been a core goal of many Religious Right leaders for some time, many of whom argue that it restricts their free speech. Some pastors have even engaged in a protest action known as “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” where pastors record political sermons they have delivered to congregations and mail them into the IRS — effectively daring the agency to prosecute them.
But while Trump and others insist this provision is a victory for the faith community, most religious Americans actually oppose allowing their leaders to endorse candidates from the pulpit. A 2016 poll conducted by PRRI found that majorities of every major faith community are opposed to allowing places of worship to keep their tax-exempt status while openly backing politicians. Not even white evangelical Protestants support the idea, with 56 percent opposed.
In fact, the issue is so unpopular with religious communities that 99 faith groups sent a letter to congressional leaders in April decrying “any effort to weaken or eliminate protections that prohibit 501(c)(3) organizations, including houses of worship, from endorsing or opposing political candidates.” Signatories included entire denominations such as the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (USA), among other groups.
“People of faith do not want partisan political fights infiltrating their houses of worship,” the letter read. “Houses of worship are spaces for members of religious communities to come together, not be divided along political lines; faith ought to be a source of connection and community, not division and discord.”