In August, in my role as president of a major interfaith organization, I found myself praising Donald Trump. He had been asked by a reporter about his faith, and essentially told the reporter to mind his own business, saying it was a personal matter. It was a response I had longed to hear from a candidate, but rarely, if ever, had anyone said it in recent election cycles. The group I head, Interfaith Alliance, put out a statement “thanking Mr. Trump for respecting religion enough to refuse to answer such questions.”
Maybe, just maybe, I thought, some of Trump’s blunt talk would help us advance our goal at the Interfaith Alliance of reducing the misuse of religion on the campaign trail.
Little by little I got the sense that my hopes about Trump were misplaced. On Tuesday, he crushed them for good. The man who less than a year ago called his own faith a personal matter stood in front of an audience of Religious Right leaders and called Hillary Clinton’s faith into question, saying we never hear from her about it. This attack followed days of trying to tie President Obama to the Islamic State and implicitly calling into question his faith. So much for it being a personal matter.
Misusing religion for political purposes has become a fact of modern-day campaigning. It frustrates me, but sadly it does not surprise me. All too often candidates appear to be running for “pastor-in-chief” instead of “commander-in-chief.” In doing so, they violate the clear mandate of the framers of our Constitution. Article VI leaves no room for misunderstanding: “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” Anyone who cannot abide that standard has no business swearing to “preserve, protect and defend” the Constitution itself (Article II).
And it is the Constitution that is the ultimate law of the land. As a person of faith, you may answer to God and choose to live your life in service to that belief. But as Americans we agree that it is the Constitution — all of it, and not just one phrase of the First Amendment — that secures the blessings of liberty. In government, it is the Constitution we collectively ordained. All other ordinations take a back seat.
Unfortunately, Trump now seems willing to make matters even worse by lending his backing to the Religious Right’s efforts to overturn the so-called Johnson Amendment. The rule, which dates back to 1954, prevents houses of worship from engaging in partisan political activities. Let’s be clear on what that does and does not mean. Houses of worship can and do participate in the campaign season, through hosting candidate forums, voter registration drives and other forms of engagement. They just can’t take sides.
Members of the clergy may endorse anyone they want, just like any other American. They just can’t do it from the pulpit or by using other resources of their tax-exempt house of worship. Clergy may also speak out as strongly as they like on any and every public policy issue, and they may do so from the pulpit. If your minister, rabbi or imam wants to rail against same-sex marriage or advocate for the right to abortion, nothing in the Johnson Amendment or any other law prevents him or her from doing so.
I should know. As a congregational rabbi for nearly four decades, I’ve spoken regularly from the pulpit about public policy issues I felt strongly about. As an individual, I have endorsed many candidates, but never once from the pulpit of my synagogue. That’s as it should be.
Houses of worship are treated like any other tax-exempt charity. We accept the tax-exempt status in exchange for agreeing to stay out of political campaigns. The First Amendment guarantees freedom of religion; it does not guarantee that religion will be tax exempt. There is nothing stopping any house of worship from waiving their tax-exempt status if they want to preach politics from the pulpit.
Our freedoms are not absolute — they have well-established limits. Your freedom of speech does not allow you to slander someone, your right to bear arms does not allow you to possess an improvised explosive device, and your freedom of religion does not give you a free pass out of any law with which you disagree.
The truth is that the Johnson Amendment has done little to limit the ability of faith leaders to speak out when they want to. Some of the most prominent voices on the political landscape in recent years have been religious leaders.
Trump has shown a distinct ability to shift his position for political expediency. I hope he will find his way back to his early views on keeping religion out of political campaigns. After all, it is part of what makes America great.