Fact-checking Donald Trump has become a small industry this election cycle. How Trump deceives people of faith with falsehoods deserves especially close scrutiny.
In his speech accepting the Republican nomination, Trump promised to repeal “an amendment, pushed by Lyndon Johnson many years ago, [that] threatens religious institutions with a loss of their tax-exempt status if they openly advocate their political views.”
No such law exists.
In full, Trump claimed that “our laws prevent you from speaking your minds from your own pulpits. An amendment, pushed by Lyndon Johnson many years ago, threatens religious institutions with a loss of their tax-exempt status if they openly advocate their political views. I am going to work very hard to repeal that language and protect free speech for all Americans. I think maybe that will be my greatest contribution to Christianity—and other religions—is to allow you, when you talk religious liberty, to go and speak openly…”
Again, no such law exists. The law Johnson sponsored says something quite different.
Trump has been getting these facts wrong since February—one of many examples of him repeating falsehoods to win votes from evangelicals whose leaders evidently have not fact-checked Trump.
In a nearly two-hour talk in Texas, Trump boasted about the backing of pastors: “Paula White, Jerry Falwell [Jr.]—so many others,” and then called to the stage Pastor Robert Jeffress, who explained the reasons he wants evangelicals to support Trump and oppose Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
Incredibly, immediately after naming two ministers who endorsed him and praising Pastor Jeffress’s endorsement, Trump complained that Christian pastors were afraid to endorse him.
Trump then declared that “Christianity is under siege. Every year it gets weaker and weaker and weaker” so that ministers he’s met are afraid to endorse him.
He went on to say, “We don’t have a [Christian] lobby because they are afraid, because they don’t want to lose their tax status. So I am going to work like hell to get rid of that prohibition and we are going to have the strongest Christian lobby and it’s going to happen. And it’s going to happen. This took place during the presidency of Lyndon Johnson and it has had a terrible, chilling effect.”
Let’s unpack that to get at the facts.
First, there is an American Christian Lobbyists Association, and many Christian lobbyists in Washington and the state capitals.
Trump says he wants to create a powerful Christian lobby even as he promises to block Muslims from entering the country, including those serving in the armed forces. Trump may not know it, but that would violate the First Amendment, which ensures that each of us is free to worship or not as we choose. In this his proposals are quintessentially un-American.
Second, the law Trump referred to does not do what he says. It was enacted in 1954 when Senator (not President) Johnson proposed an amendment to a bill establishing an entirely new tax code. The Johnson amendment was so utterly without controversy that no debate took place in Congress. That law has been upheld by the United States Supreme Court.
Here’s what the Johnson amendment said: Religious organizations—which by definition include churches, synagogues and mosques—are free to declare their beliefs. One can urge a Constitutional amendment banning all abortion, another can preach that abortion is a woman’s right and others anything in between.
The law imposes only three limits on charities, including religious institutions, in return for the privilege of donors being allowed to deduct their contributions.
One is that any surplus—what in business would be a profit—cannot go to any individual or shareholder. Second, propaganda and influencing legislation are allowed, but only as a minor activity, the limits on which Congress adjusts from time to time.
The third and most important limit is that charitable organizations cannot “participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”
Note that the limit is not about political views, as Trump said, but about supporting candidates. Those are not synonymous, not even close.
A federal appeals court ruled in a 1992 case that a New York church which took out newspaper ads urging people not to vote for Bill Clinton lost its tax privilege because it violated the rule on candidates.
There is good reason for this. It means that Trump supporters are not forced by Congress to subsidize donations to Hillary Clinton and Clinton supporters are not subsidizing donations to Trump.
The Supreme Court also upheld the second limit, that influencing legislation and propaganda must be a minor activity to qualify for charitable status, in a 1983 decision by the very conservative justice William Rehnquist.
That unanimous ruling held that no First Amendment rights—of religion, speech, publishing, or assembly—are infringed by denying charitable status to organizations whose primary activities are influencing legislation and other political activities. You can read the decision here.
Churches are free to create a separate nonprofit organization under 501(c)(4) of the tax code which can have as its primary purposes propaganda and influencing legislation. Gifts to these organizations, however, are not tax deductible.
Harvey P. Dale, a New York University law professor who directs its National Center on Philanthropy and the Law, noted that if Trump really means to limit his repeal to religious institutions it would violate the First Amendment, which in its opening words states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…”
Professor Dale warns that unscrupulous political operatives “with only a thin veneer of being religious” would almost certainly create religious institutions just to provide donors with tax deductions for their political donations while nonreligious charities would be treated differently.
That would create an almost impossible situation for the tax police, the IRS officials whose job is to enforce the tax laws Congress enacts.
This is just one area where Trump uses falsehood to deceive evangelicals, as polls show white evangelicals supporting him by a 4-to-1 margin. In my book The Making of Donald Trump, which will be published on Aug. 2, I show at length how, in word and deed, Trump’s philosophy is antithetical to the most basic tenets of Christianity. He calls those who embrace the best known teachings of Jesus Christ “schmucks.”
The ministers who openly endorse Trump evidently have not studied the contrast between what he says in their presence and what he says and does when he is not flattering them. Those pastors and their flocks would be wise to review the many scriptures on deceivers, starting with Romans 16:17-19, which in one modern translation warns:
I urge you, brothers and sisters, to keep an eye on those who cause dissensions and offences, in opposition to the teaching that you have learned; avoid them. For such people do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the simple-minded. For while your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, I want you to be wise in what is good, and guileless in what is evil.
Not incidentally, while Trump claims to be a Christian and made a show of attending Presbyterian services recently, he is not a member, according to the Presbyterian Church USA. Thus he cannot be disciplined by the church for his statements that it has advised in a letter to him contradict Christian theology.
Pastors who inquire will find an extensive body of evidence from Trump’s words and deeds showing that he aggressively opposes Christ’s message. Those clergy who foolishly embrace Trump as a fellow believer will one day face judgment, called upon to explain their role in deceiving their flocks.