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Will Trump End the Ban on Endorsing Candidates From the Pulpit?

The Johnson Amendment is the 1954 law that forbids churches from specifically speaking in favor of or against a candidate from the pulpit.

President-elect Donald Trump is just weeks from being sworn into office, and many pundits argue that it was a final push by the Evangelical Right that gave him the boost in the election that he needed to get to this moment.

He made big promises to the religious right in exchange for their support: promises to choose judges that would overturn Roe v. Wade, agreements to protect their “religious liberty” by championing expanded conscience objections to LGBT discrimination accusations, an attempt to funnel more federal education dollar to vouchers that can be used for religious schools.

A peek at his future administration shows he plans to follow through on all of these promises, offering a number of positions to well-known Evangelical politicians dedicated to these issues. But will he still agree to repeal the Johnson Amendment? That’s still up in the air.

The Johnson Amendment is the 1954 law that forbids churches from specifically speaking in favor of or against a candidate from the pulpit, ruling that as long as religious houses are exempt from paying taxes, they must refrain from getting involved in partisan political campaigns.

In practice it hasn’t had a massive amount of effect in restraining churches, who instead comment on and campaign for or against ballot initiatives or tell their parishioners to “vote for life” in upcoming races, or even allow candidates to come speak about their faith in a tactic endorsement.

Still, that minimal restriction has rankled reverends and priests, and many are eager to see it go. And in exchange for their support, Trump vowed on the trail to make that happen.

“The Johnson Amendment has blocked our pastors and ministers and others from speaking their minds from their own pulpits,” Trump told the 2016 Values Voters summit as he stumped for their support. “If they want to talk about Christianity, if they want to preach, if they want to talk about politics, they are unable to do so. If they want to do it, they take a tremendous risk, that they lose their tax-exempt status. All religious leaders should be able to freely express their thoughts and feelings on religious matters. And I will repeal the Johnson Amendment if I am elected your president. I promise. So important. Thank you. So important.”

After the election — but before his nomination to be the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Republican Ben Carson reportedly told participants of a “Salt and Light Lecture” conference call that, “‘If we get the Johnson Amendment rescinded, pastors can have fiery sermons and talk about what’s right and what’s wrong (again),'” according to Charisma News, adding that, “‘If we rescind the Johnson Amendment and people are not afraid of losing their tax (status), then we will see Donald Trump be vigorous,’ and Judeo-Christian values return to the American forefront.”

Of course for Trump, this isn’t as much about unshackling the religious right from any alleged curtailing of their free speech. To him, it is more a business transaction, a repayment for their work on his campaign. And maybe even a little bit of a payoff to God to make up for any bad things he may have done in the past.

According to Politico:

[D]uring a call with his evangelical advisory council, he drew rebukes from members of the board when he got transactional — about going to heaven.

“He said, ‘the only way I’m going to get to heaven is by repealing the Johnson amendment,'” which restricts tax-exempt churches from engaging in political activity, Land recalled. “Immediately, one of our people on the call said, ‘No, sir, the only way you’re going to get to heaven is by trusting Jesus Christ as your personal savior.’ Mr. Trump said, ‘Thank you for reminding me.'”

Will Trump follow through with his promise to the religious right? If so, he may be in for quite the backlash from the rest of the country — including church attendees themselves.

“Polls show that most Americans dislike pulpit politicking; they don’t want their pastors telling them how to vote,” writes Americans United for the Separating of Church and State. “A September report by LifeWay Research showed that 79 percent of Americans believe it’s inappropriate for a cleric to endorse a candidate during a religious service, while 75 percent are against their houses of worship endorsing a candidate under any circumstances. Americans look to houses of worship as places to rise above the partisan divide. LifeWay Research’s Executive Director Scott McConnell noted, ‘Americans already argue about politics enough outside the church. They don’t want pastors bringing those arguments into worship.'”