It’s bad enough that President Donald Trump held what amounted to a “state dinner party” at the White House exclusively for U.S. Christian evangelical guests. But at the Monday night event, Trump added injury to insult by repeating his lie that he has gotten “rid of” a law forbidding churches from endorsing political candidates.
"Now one of the things I'm most proud of is getting rid of the Johnson Amendment," the president told a closed-door session of the gathered evangelical leaders. He added: “In the last 18 months alone, we have stopped the Johnson Amendment from interfering with your First Amendment rights. (Applause.) A big deal. It’s a big deal.”
Utterly untrue. Trump began claiming he’d repealed the Johnson Amendment last year as part of his 2017 National Day of Prayer proclamation. The Johnson Amendment properly bars tax-exempt charities from engaging in politicking — an Internal Revenue Service provision applies equally to all 501(c)(3) organizations, including but not singling out churches. The statute prevents taxpayer-subsidized donations and resources from influencing elections.
During the 2017 Rose Garden announcement, however, Trump announced that churches and only churches were being silenced by the provision, and that churches were now exempt from the Johnson Amendment safeguard.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation subsequently sued Trump over his assertions. After forcing the Department of Justice to twice admit in filings that Trump’s proclamation did not and could not repeal a congressional statute, FFRF agreed to dismiss the lawsuit, having proved our point.
But his lie about the Johnson Amendment continues.
Almost as disturbing as Trump’s “alternative facts” about the Johnson Amendment is the fact that Trump put on this lovefest for evangelical leaders at all. The dinner party turned into a virtual campaign event, in which he pandered to the Christian conservatives about all the ways he’s curried their favor.
Formal remarks were released to the media, in which Trump repeated some of his favorite pandering lines. Read Trump remarks to evangelical leaders.
“We’re here this evening to celebrate America’s heritage of faith, family, and freedom. As you know, in recent years, the government tried to undermine religious freedom. But the attacks on communities of faith are over. We’ve ended it. We’ve ended it.”
Trump cynically issued a laundry list of ways in which he has done the Christian Right bidding: “Together, we will uplift our nation in prayer, defend the sanctity of life, and forever proudly remain one nation under God.”
He called “America is a nation of believers.” He added: “And tonight we’re joined by faith leaders from across the country who believe in the dignity of life, the glory of God, and the power of prayer.”
Among those he singled out for special praise, besides his ultra-pious veep, Secretary Ben Carson (whom FFRF is suing LINK) and Ambassador Sam Brownback, reads like an evangelical Who’s Who (or else a very scary Stephen King novel). Lavished with praise were James and Shirley Dobson, Paula White, Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell, Ralph Reed, Tony Perkins and First Baptist Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress. Jeffress has famously said “Mormonism is a cult,” “Gay is not OK,” and “God sends good people to hell . . . hell is going to be filled with good religious people who have rejected the truth of Christ.”
Jeffress told Fox News Monday night following the dinner party that Trump’s extramarital affairs don’t dampen the Christian Right’s enthusiasm for his “excellent policies.” Jeffress said, "I know a lot of people are still perplexed. Why are Christians so supportive of Donald Trump? Well, it's really not that hard to figure out when you realize he is the most pro-life, pro-religious liberty, pro-conservative judiciary in history and that includes either Bush or Ronald Reagan."
During the later closed-door session, Trump exploited the occasion to urge the pastors and religious leaders present to get their congregations to get out the vote: “I just ask you to go out and make sure all of your people vote. Because if they don't — it's November 6 — if they don't vote, we're going to have a miserable two years and we're going to have, frankly, a very hard period of time," he said.
"You're one election away from losing everything that you've gotten," he added. "Little thing: Merry Christmas, right? You couldn't say 'Merry Christmas.' "
“The level of hatred, the level of anger is unbelievable," he said. "Part of it is because of some of the things I've done for you and for me and for my family, but I've done them. … This Nov. 6 election is very much a referendum on not only me, it's a referendum on your religion, it's a referendum on free speech and the First Amendment."
Among Trump’s more controversial remarks was one warning that if the GOP loses, "they will overturn everything that we've done and they'll do it quickly and violently, and violently. There's violence. When you look at Antifa and you look at some of these groups — these are violent people."
The entire spectacle was an advertisement for the need to buttress that besieged wall of separation between religion and government.