Establishment Clause, Johnson Amendment, War?

So who knew the Establishment Clause could be so complicated? Trump recently signed an executive order (really? he does that? who knew?) that, with a deep dive, is more than a little wrong headed. My reason for saying that is no pulpit should be a soap box for blatant political speech when all of us who pay taxes help fund them because they are tax exempt. I am all for those same religious organizations campaigning for and doing social good; the black churches in the South in the 1960s were both sanctuaries and essential parts of the civil rights movement.

But there are several looming (and perhaps extant) problems. First, the Citizens United SCOTUS decision giving people-hood to corporations.Will corporations be able to claim some religious freedoms thought to be exclusively for actual citizens?

If the proposed tax decrease were to become law, the corporate tax rate would fall to 15% and include mom and pop and other small business entities. If you are a high net worth individual, your personal tax rate at the top would fall from 39% to 35%, but it would fall another 20% if you became a small business. And it would fall another 15%, to 0%, if you became a church.

If religious organizations are able to proactively be political, campaign and promote political ideas and candidates and policies, why have PACs at all? PACs do have some restrictions that would go poof! if they became the First Church of Holy Moley. Engage in any form of political activity, no worries about disclosing donors, no tax consequences, no accountability to anyone.

I’m afraid that sounds a bit like a foreign government to me. How would we ever know?

So who knew, right? Well time to educate yourself. Even if you are the most pious, most devout, most enthusiastic believer, you should be worried that those who might want to cloak themselves in your beliefs in fact are anything but what you would expect.

So start by reading some history and background on the Johnson Amendment which was signed into law by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1954. Yes, way back then. Also start with the idea, if you can, that this is not about a war on religion or Christmas or your religious liberty. I would be the first to champion for you to practice and observer your faith privately and publicly, and that allowing me and others to believe and do so differently is fundamentally the same thing. I offer this as a starting point.

And then there is this:  Mike Pence addressed the World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians in Washington D.C. on Thursday, May 11, saying among other things, that “The freedom to worship God according to the dictates of our conscience is at the very heart of who we are as Americans,” he said. “In a very real sense, America was founded by people who had the courage to cross the Atlantic, motivated in so many cases to come here so that they might have that freedom of religion.”  True enough, but the result was an inconsistent tolerance.  Some colonies permitted wide berth for what people believed and how they worshiped, while others had no tolerance whatsoever from a veer from the message of the pulpit.  Recall that Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter was afixed in Boston, and the Salem witch trials were nearby, both religiously inspired.  Recall also that Christmas celebrations were not allowed: no joyful times to go with the business of keeping the faithful pure.

Pence went on.  “The practitioners of terror harbor a special hatred for the followers of Christ, and none more so than the barbarians known as ISIS.  That brutal regime shows a savagery, frankly, unseen in the Middle East since the Middle Ages.  And I believe ISIS is guilty of nothing short of genocide against people of the Christian faith, and it is time the world called it by name.”  To be fair, there is a sense that many terrorists are Muslim, but he overwhelming majority of Muslims decry these as extremists who contort the beliefs of Islam to their own purposes.

I have never first identified Trump or Pence as curious students of history, but to even the most uninterested students of it, the Crusades is passingly familiar, as is the Inquisition.  We don’t have to dive through that many centuries though to reflect on Uganda’s treatment of homosexuals by the government and religious groups there.  So, Pence, saying repeatedly he was speaking for Trump, conveniently overlooks lots of nasty stuff Christians have done in the name of religion.

The lesson from history is not that being a devout follower is wrong but that religion is intolerant and has asserted time and time again that one version is not just right but must dominate the others. Couple that with governments or rulers who knew that religion might undermine their authority and did all they could to ban and abolish it altogether.

The lessons of Christianity I grew up with somehow avoided all the punishment and retribution teachings that I later discovered were bedrocks of what others were taught.  As a Catholic, I still marvel that I just got the warm, fuzzy, loving stuff and none of the fear.  So my view of Jesus and Christianity is a loving, inclusive and generous one. I am aware that the New Testament often takes the stand of with me or against me, but it is filled with stories of non-believers who do good works.  And believers who do not.

What trouble me about Pence’s speech and the executive order is that this is all a dog whistle to the electorate saying “they are coming after you, vote for me!”  It is a dog whistle that anyone who is not evangelical is against them, Christian or not.  That those of other faiths are those from whom they can take the country back and make America great again.  It got T and P over 80% of the evangelical vote in 2016.  Was this stand on religion what the authors of the Constitution had in mind?  Think about that answer in layered nuanced concepts.

You can watch Pence giving this speech




Is this a remake of an old movie?

And of course I mean….

The Donald.  Many of us would characterize him as a demigod, referring to the derogatory definition that elevates an individual to an impressive or important status for self aggrandizement.  In the political sense, a demigod is someone who challenges the system of government but in a way that puts them at the helm of a gathering citizenry.  While possibly a good way to keep government in check – think Bernie Sanders – when taken to an extreme and the citizenry becomes a violent enforcer not so good – think Adolf Hitler.

No matter where on the political spectrum they fall, none of my friends disagree about Trump.  We find him outrageous, uncultured, ill tempered and self promoting.  And those are just the good things.  So I got to thinking, how unique or unusual is he in American politics, or world politics?

I don’t really know but hope someone does

There are a few politicians who have appeared during my lifetime, or a bit before it so their legends are well known to me, that want to make me believe Trump is just another one of them.  Think of Huey Long, Sen. Joe McCarthy, George Wallace.  They all played to populist fears and gained more than just a following, like demigods do.

I leap to the conclusion that these guys, along with Trump, are admired by groups of people who are not that distinguished from one another over across the decades.  They are people who feel threatened that their way of life is being taken away and want to blame the government run by “others” for “others.”  If contemporary polls, and my ad hoc experiences, are correct, they are also predominately male with little or no higher education.  They feel, or at least exhibit, that they have little or no control over their lives, and they naturally look for an outspoken, muscular-sounding, I-ll-fix-the-problem leader. Never mind that these leaders don’t articulate what the REAL problems are nor offer any viable solutions to them.  All they have to do is rant.

Does history bear me out on this?

I hope so.  While Long ran Louisiana like it was his own fiefdom, as did Wallace in Alabama, neither man was a successful presidential candidate.  It was sad that both were targets of assignation though; no one deserves that fate.  McCarthy died in office after a vitriolic career of not just looking under every rock for a Communist but for homosexuals as well.  All of these, including Trump, were vilified while running and/or in power by a great many.

What does not make me qualified to rely on history is my lack of really understanding it.  What are the real messages, if any, and how would we learn about them?  If history is repeating itself, why and how can we recognize it and avoid the wrong outcomes again?

May politicians learn from history: what works and why.  Maybe they recognize as well that most people don’t learn from it at all, and they are doomed to repeat it.  They rest of us are doomed to watch them do it.