One of the president’s contentious religious-liberty executive orders may have more to do with fundraising than freedom.
Among a host of provisions President Donald Trump signed Thursday was an order directing the IRS to be lenient about a law that blocks pastors from endorsing candidates from the pulpit. Just one issue: The IRS is already incredibly lenient about enforcing this law—so much so that some pastors have been trying for years to goad the agency into enforcing it, to no avail.
“I’ve never heard it come up as a priority, ever. Not once,” said Tim Schultz, who heads the First Amendment Partnership, an organization with the stated goal of promoting and protecting religious freedom. “There’s probably been more discussion of the Johnson Amendment in the last 24 hours than I’ve heard in the last six years.”
One Republican lobbyist who has been working with social conservatives for decades said he had heard “absolutely zero conversation” about the Johnson Amendment beyond a few small circles. The ringleader in those circles, he added, is Tony Perkins, who heads the conservative Family Research Council. Before Trump started bringing up a Johnson Amendment repeal on the campaign trail, the lobbyist said, he never heard anyone describe it as a top priority.
That’s because the IRS doesn’t enforce it. The Family Research Council and the conservative legal group Alliance Defending Freedom have an effort called Pulpit Freedom Sunday, where pastors explicitly violate the amendment by endorsing candidates from the pulpit and then send video of themselves doing so to the IRS. Thousands of pastors have done this over the last ten years. The IRS has yet to bite.
“There have been people literally begging the IRS to enforce it because they want it to be enforced because they think it’s unconstitutional and they need it to be enforced to have a case to bring to the courts,” said Schultz.
North Carolina pastor Mark Harris participated in the project in 2012 by endorsing the re-election bid of state Supreme Court Justice Paul Newby. He told The Daily Beast that he has yet to hear from the IRS about it.
One long-time, well-connected social conservative leader said he thought the Pulpit Freedom Sunday project was just a ploy for the groups involved to raise money.
“The people who like this like to grandstand for fundraising,” he said. “This is one you send to your people. You say, ‘Look what we did, look how great this is.’ These guys are not moving the needle on actual policy, but they’ll run around and their donors will like it.”
“They go to major Evangelical/Catholic donors with this pitch and it feels good,” he added. “But practically, it takes a lot more work to give pastors and conservatives running non-profits the courage to stand up than to give them permission under the Johnson Amendment.”
Perkins called that charge “ludicrous,” and said their work on the Johnson Amendment is significant.
“That’s laughable,” he said. “That’s just a way to be dismissive of any effort that we undertake, especially as a non-profit organization that exists not on government money but on the support of the public. We take up issues that the public cares about and is willing to support us in doing.”
Perkins was at the White House for the signing of the president’s executive order, and attended a dinner there the night before as well. He said he thinks Congress will formally vote to repeal the Johnson Amendment before the end of the year. Rep. Steve Scalise, the House Majority Whip, is sponsoring legislation that would do so.
“We’re plotting all of that out,” Perkins said. “I don’t know when exactly it’s going to come about, but stand by, it’s coming.”
Perkins added that he believes Trump is going out of his way to work with Evangelical conservatives—like on the Johnson Amendment—so they will help him on legislative issues where they wouldn’t typically get involved.
“He sees them—well, he knows, because he brings it up every time I talk to him—the critical part they played in his election and the critical part they play in helping bring support to his legislative agenda,” Perkins said. “So that’s why he pays attention to issues that are important to them, to Evangelicals, because he wants them to be helpful on issues that are important to him.”
He said Evangelical support for Trump’s Obamacare replacement bill was part of that. Ralph Reed’s organization, the Faith and Freedom Coalition, urged members of Congress to back Trump’s bill. So did Perkins’ Family Research Council.
Perkins said Trump’s friendliness with Evangelical leaders has grown deeper during his time in the White House.
“I see him growing to the point that he actually enjoys being with Evangelicals and is building a good rapport,” he said, “and I think part of it is because he doesn’t find such a large bloc of support anywhere else.”