In 1954 then Senator, and later President, Lyndon B. Johnson saw his amendment passed that stops religious groups who are tax-exempt from endorsing or opposing political candidates in the United States. Providing the groups remain outside politics they keep their tax-exemption. For sixty years this has been the case in the United States and helps keep Church and State separate. The old adage that you can’t have taxation without representation was maintained as the religious groups had no formal representation so therefore paid no taxes. This week, President Trump has threatened to overturn this long-held policy and completely reverse the whole notion of the Johnson Amendment.
Citing Andrew Johnson, when he wrote “’Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?,” Trump suggested that the Johnson Amendment has somehow constrained the Constitutional right to freedom of religious beliefs, saying that he “will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution—I will do that.” Trump is clearly coming down on the side of religious groups in America, though he is probably thinking solely of Christians in light of his attacks on the Muslim community in the United States. He reflected this Christian-bias when he spoke of the threat to freedom of religion around the world:
“Freedom of religion is a sacred right, but it’s also a right under threat all around us and the world is under serious, serious threat in so many different ways.
“I’ve never seen it so much and so openly. We’re going to straighten it out. That’s what I do, I fix things. It’s time we’re going to be a little bit tough.
“We’ve seen unimaginable violence carried out in the name of religion. Acts of wanton slaughter against religious minorities. Terrorism is a fundamental threat to religious freedom.”
Although he does not specifically name Christianity or Islam, it seems likely that his fears of religious extremism don’t encompass Christian fundamentalism and that his talk of ‘unimaginable violence’ is a reference to ISIS. I fail to see how a US President is going to “fix things”. He speaks of “wanton slaughter against religious minorities” – again probably referring to the slaughter of Christians in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, ignoring the fact that most violence committed by ISIS and other Islamic extremists are against other Muslims. The idea behind his comments on the threat to religion around the world would be noble if he had demonstrated any capacity to accept that the overwhelming majority of Muslims – in America and elsewhere – are not extremists or terrorists. His policies on immigration and his travel ban on Muslims imposed last week demonstrate that he has no desire to ease the plight of Muslims who are suffering around the world, and increasing in the United States itself.
Disturbingly, in my opinion, the breaking down of the barriers between Church and State in the United States is a dangerous step forward. We all know that religion is never far away in American political campaigns – how many candidates can you name who don’t at some point in their campaigns declare their belief in God or their Christian values, which is generally code for Right-wing Conservative values? Trump’s pronouncement on the Johnson Amendment comes at the same time as an apparent leaked draft of a upcoming executive order shows that Donald Trump wants to go further, and again shows his bias towards Christians. It says that he is considering enshrining Christian values into administration policy-making. Such Christian values almost certainly include opposition to abortion and gay marriage. It could enshrine Conservative Christian beliefs such as
- that marriage is or should be recognised as the union of one man and one woman;
- sexual relations are properly reserved for such a marriage;
- male and female and their equivalents refer to an individual’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy, physiology, or genetics at or before birth;
- that human life begins at conception and merits protection at all stages of life;
The leaked draft also suggests that tax-exemption would remain for those religious organisations that support Christian values and that any “adverse action” taken against religious groups who discriminate on the grounds of those beliefs and values will be protected. This could mean, for instance, that adoption or fostering agencies who discriminate against gay people on religious grounds could be protected from lawsuits.
The repeal of the Johnson Amendment was one of his campaign promises, reflected in his statement last September when he said: “Christian heritage will be cherished, protected, defended like you have never seen before” and that the repeal of the Johnson Amendment would “give our churches their voice back.” Yet another attack on the perceived threat to America from Islam and from Muslim immigration. Today, Trump made another grandiose statement:
“Our republic was formed on the basis that freedom is not a gift from government, but that freedom is a gift from God. We are all united by our faith, in our creator, in our firm knowledge that we are all equal in his eyes. We are not just flesh and bone and blood. We are human beings with souls.”
As an atheist, this offends me on many levels, but knowing Donald Trump’s animosity towards Islam and probably anyone who doesn’t conform to his narrow view of what makes someone Christian, this statement is just ridiculous as Trump clearly does not believe that we are all equal in the eyes of God. The notion that the founders of the United States believed that freedom is a gift from God not Government may be true, and was certainly reflected in their desire to flee Europe so as to practise their religious beliefs as they wished to free from persecution. However, it seems to me that the founders also saw the dangers of religious fanatics wielding political power and therefore believed in, and enshrined in the Constitution, the separation of Church and State. If the Constitution declares that the government may not regulate the practising of religion then it seems logical that they also meant that imposing political advantage for Christians over all other religions, and people of none, is also wrong. Trump’s pronouncements and plans ignore the Constitution in this respect and puts the whole doctrine of separation of Church and State in real jeopardy. The Constitution may have said “One nation under God,” but it doesn’t say Christianity even once. When Benjamin Franklin wanted each day of the Constitutional Convention to begin with a prayer to God, he was defeated. The founders made the separation of Church and State one of their first priorities and the Pledge of Allegiance (which now is made to God) originally didn’t even mention God, being more a pledge to patriotism not religious faith – as seen in the the Pledge used at the first Columbus Day :
“I pledge allegiance to my flag and the republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
Trump isn’t the first to try and destroy the separation of Church and State. As far back as the post-Civil War years in the second half of the 1860’s some where declaring that the war was retribution from God for the founders’ refusal (not failure, or oversight) to declare the United States as a Christian nation. Attempts failed to amend the Constitution to correct the founders’ error. By the 1950s attacks on the separation of Church and State were perhaps at their height. Billy Graham (below left) preached that unless Americans embraced Jesus Christ they would perish in a “nuclear holocaust,” and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles (below right) said that the United States should oppose Communism and the Soviet Union not because it was a totalitarian dictatorship but because its leaders were atheists. Religious zeal ran hand-in-hand with the so-called Red Scare and during this era daily prayers and prayer rooms were introduced in Washington and Congress and the words “In God We Trust” was added to banknotes. These same words were then used to replace the nation’s motto: E Pluribus Unum – which translates as Out of many, One and is a reference to the individual States that make up the United States. It was in the 1950s that the phrase “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance after a long campaign, and again was partly an effort to separate the beliefs of the United States from the atheism of Communism. The US Supreme Court ruled in 1971 that the insertion of the term “under God” was unconstitutional as it had the purpose of endorsing religion. Students, for example, are not required to take the Pledge, but are often forced to through peer pressure into proclaiming religious beliefs they don’t share.
It seems to be that a United States under Trump will soon be one where unless you share his Conservative Christian beliefs and values you will be treated as unequal, as a second-class citizen not worthy of either respect or protection under the law. It seems to me that President Trump, in trying to impose his Christianity on everyone in the United States – and beyond – demonstrates he is an extremist – something that the founders’ would have held in contempt. It also shows his ignorance of the meaning of the Constitution as drawn up by the founders. Like many politicians in the United States, he relies on the ignorance of Americans for their own Constitution to allow himself to distort and misuse the Constitution for his own political and religious beliefs and values. As an atheist I’m appalled when someone, of any religion, tries to impose their religious beliefs on others, and does so in the name of bettering other people. If you wish to practise your religion, then do so, but please don’t tell me what I should believe and keep your proselytising to yourself and don’t try to force your religion on me or anyone else. If you begin making policy and laws that say Christian values take precedence, not only do you weaken the tolerance of religious diversity and the separation of Church and State enshrined in the Constitution of the United States, but you will also alienate and radicalise people who don’t share your beliefs. No good will come from having an alienated or radicalised population. No good will come from undermining your own Constitution for perceived political gain.