Much-dreaded “sharia law,” or something resembling it, may well be coming to the United States.
Just not in the form many Americans expected.
That is, the religiously motivated laws creeping into public policymaking aren’t based on the Koran, and they aren’t coming from mythical hard-line Islamists in, say, Dearborn, Mich. They’re coming from the White House, which wants to make it easier for hard-line Christians to impose their beliefs and practices on the rest of us.
A few days after declaring his intention to impose a religious test upon refugees so that Christians would be given priority, President Trump gave a bizarre speech at the National Prayer Breakfast. In between a plug for “The Apprentice” and boasts about his disastrous calls with heads of allied states, he made some less-noticed policy news.
He vowed to help blur the line between church and state by repealing the Johnson Amendment.
For those unfamiliar, this tax code provision bars tax-exempt entities such as churches and charitable organizations from participating in campaigns for or against political candidates. It dates to 1954, when it was signed by Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower. It was not terribly controversial at the time.
The provision basically says that if you want to be exempted from paying taxes — meaning you are effectively subsidized by other taxpayers, who pay for your access to emergency services, roads and other government functions — you can’t be involved in partisan politics. You can’t, among other things, take tax-deductible donations from your worshippers and turn around and spend them on political campaigns.
That’s just the trade-off you agree to make.
Certain religious organizations, in particular those from the evangelical Christian community, have opposed this law in recent years. And during the campaign, Trump indicated he’d do his darnedest to get them what they really want: not the ability to endorse candidates from the pulpit — a practice that the IRS has already been ignoring — but the ability to funnel taxpayer-subsidized funds into the political process.
The president can’t “totally destroy” the law unilaterally, despite Trump’s pledge to do so; he’ll need action from Congress, but that may not be hard to secure these days. Republicans control both houses of Congress, and the most recent Republican platform included a commitment to repeal the Johnson Amendment.
Also this week, the Nation’s Sarah Posner published a leaked draft of an executive order that would require federal agencies to look the other way when private organizations discriminate based on religious beliefs. Coincidentally, these seem to primarily be religious beliefs held by conservative Christians.
The effect of the order might be to create wholesale exemptions to anti-discrimination law for people, nonprofits and closely held for-profit corporations that claim religious objections to same-sex marriage, premarital sex, abortion and transgender identity. It would also curb women’s access to contraception through the Affordable Care Act. (A White House official did not dispute the draft’s authenticity.)
This is, of course, all in the name of preserving religious freedom. Except that it allows some people to practice religious freedom by denying jobs, services and potentially public accommodation to those with differing beliefs.
The order, if signed, would seem to exceed the executive branch’s authority, Posner notes; moreover, given that the order’s language appears to privilege some religious beliefs over others, it may violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment.
Trump has also chosen personnel who seem keen on muddying the distinction between church and state.
For example, his embattled education secretary nominee, Betsy DeVos, has advocated that government dollars be channeled to religious schools through relatively expansive voucher programs. (During the campaign, Trump also said that public funds should follow students to the private school of their choice, explicitly including religious schools.)
During her confirmation hearings, DeVos’s cryptic comments about supporting science education that encourages “critical thinking” have also been interpreted as well-established code for supporting the teaching of intelligent design, a sort of dressed-up creationism.
I wish I could say that only a tiny fringe believes Christian practices deserve pride of place in public life and policymaking. But that’s not the case.
In a poll released this week by the Pew Research Center, Americans were asked what made someone “truly American.” A third of respondents overall, and 43 percent of Republicans, said you need to be Christian. That would exclude me, as well as about 30 percent of the population.
The far right has done a lot of fear-mongering about the undue influence that religious fanatics may soon exert on the body politic. Seems they better understood what they were talking about than most of us realized.