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Mike Pence's church pitch, the Johnson Amendment, and the decline of the religious right

The VP candidate’s plea to evangelicals two days before the election says a lot about the religious right’s decline.

The VP candidate made a last-ditch pitch to evangelicals on November 6.
The VP candidate made a last-ditch pitch to evangelicals on November 6.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Some evangelical Christians in America saw Mike Pence at church on November 6.

Not Pence in the flesh, of course — the Republican vice presidential candidate was on the campaign trail in Panama City, Florida, and Hickory, North Carolina. But a five-minute video in which Pence, clad in a navy blue suit, stands in front of a white wall and delivers a direct pitch to congregants in churches was uploaded to Vimeo on Thursday under the title “Church Greeting.”

The video seems like it was produced in some kind of parallel universe to the actual Trump campaign, with its references to the civil rights movement and slavery and its very specific bid for evangelical votes made in clean, positive evangelical lingo.

But the video also encapsulates the campaign’s promises to evangelicals that it hopes will sway their vote, despite widespread reticence due to Trump’s behavior and promises on many fronts. And furthermore — especially in its reiteration of Trump’s pledge to repeal the Johnson Amendment — it’s an indicator of the greatest anxiety among the aging moral majority, who feel their influence waning: a lessening grip on the political power they’ve enjoyed over the past few decades.

Reports on Friday from right-leaning sources the Blaze, the Christian Post, and the Christian Broadcasting Network (founded by Pat Robertson) said that “thousands” of churches would be airing the ad. That’s hard to substantiate. And it’s not clear how the churches were alerted to the ad; Pence’s Twitter account, for instance, didn’t mention it.

But from Twitter it’s clear at least a few churches did screen the ad during their morning services:

Phenomenon Post, which appears to have produced the video, also uploaded a version with an additional 14 seconds at the beginning in which Pence greets the Church at the Mall, a megachurch in Lakeland, Florida, and mentions an invitation to speak to the congregation from its pastor, Jay Dennis. In July, Dennis wrote “An Open Letter to Mrs. Hillary Clinton and Mr. Donald Trump,” which appears on the church website.

The more generic ad appears to be cut from the Church at the Mall ad, and by Sunday night had been played nearly 80,000 times.

Pence is trying to follow a traditional evangelical outreach script

In the ad, Pence appeals directly to people sitting in the pews at church, speaking of his faith background and his “personal decision” to follow Jesus during his freshman year of college.

He outlines his plan, along with “my running mate” Donald Trump, to do two things, which have formed the poles of the campaign’s approach to its traditionally Republican-voting white evangelical base throughout.

First, he states that Trump will appoint justices to the Supreme Court “who will uphold our constitution and the rights of the unborn” — in other words, holding conservative views on religious freedom and abortion.

Second, Pence says, Trump will repeal the Johnson Amendment. "The Johnson Amendment has literally been on the books since the 1950s and it essentially threatens tax-exempt organizations and churches with losing their tax status if they speak out against important issues facing the nation from the pulpit," Pence says.

Saying that a careful study of American history shows the importance of speaking from the pulpit, Pence enumerates three moments in American history in which pulpits stood against tyranny: against King George III’s oppressive rule prior to the American Revolution, against the practice of slavery, and in favor of civil rights. (It’s worth noting that there are plenty of examples of pulpits standing for these things as well, a matter Pence does not address; similarly, the Johnson Amendment was in fact passed during the early days of the civil rights movement.)

Also absent from Pence’s pitch is any mention of Trump’s less appealing features to many in the evangelical community: the famous video in which Trump brags about sexually assaulting a woman, his infidelities, his immigration policies, and other features that have thrown his support among evangelicals into question, even though his numbers are still strong with white evangelicals. Perhaps reminding them of Trumps “flaws,” as some have called them, even while downplaying them, is too risky a move two days before the election.

The Johnson Amendment first became interesting to Trump in June

Pence made sure to mention the Johnson Amendment, which seems to have first surfaced among Trump’s talking points on June 22, a month before his nomination as his party’s presidential candidate, when Trump met in New York City with hundreds of evangelical leaders in a closed-door meeting in New York City.

During that meeting, Trump delivered the outlines of what would be one of his two promises to woo evangelicals:

The government has gotten so involved in your religion. Especially your religion, that it makes it very difficult. We’ll talk about that. Mike and I have been discussing it, and I think we have some very important things to say. The next president — it’s going to be vital. Not only with Supreme Court justices, which we’ll also talk about at length. But also in things like freeing up your religion, freeing up your thoughts, freeing up your…

You talk about religious liberty and religious freedom. You really don’t have religious freedom, if you really think about it, because when President Johnson had his tenure, he passed something that makes people very, very nervous to even talk to preserve their tax-exempt status. It’s taken a lot of power away from Christianity and other religions.

I’ve seen it … I said, “Why is it that the whole thing with Christianity, it’s not going in the right direction? It’s getting weaker, weaker, weaker from a societal standpoint?” And over the course of various meetings, I realized that there are petrified ministers and churches. They speak before 25,000 people, the most incredible speakers you could ever see, better than any politician by far. And yet when it comes to talking about it openly or who they support or why they support somebody because he’s a person — a man or a woman — who is into their values, they’re petrified to do it.

And I couldn’t get the answer. And then one day, at one of our meetings, somebody said, “They’re petrified of losing their tax-exempt status.” And I said, “What is that all about?” And they went into it. It was what happened during the Johnson administration. And I will tell you folks that some of you will agree, some of you will disagree, and some of you, it’s been ingrained and that’s the worst thing because you don’t even think about it. You can’t see the forest for the trees, some of you are so close to it. But I can tell you, I watched this during the last year, and I watched fear in the hearts of brave, incredible people. And we are going to get rid of that, because you should have the right to speak.

Here, Trump incorrectly says that Johnson passed the amendment while president — Johnson served as president from 1963 to 1969, and the amendment was passed by Congress in 1954. Johnson was then a senator, and the amendment was designed at least in part to keep tax-exempt organizations from endorsing or opposing candidates during the McCarthy era.

The issue resurfaced in Trump’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention on July 21, in which he talked about “an amendment, pushed by Lyndon Johnson many years ago, threatens religious institutions with a loss of their tax-exempt status if they openly advocate their political views." (We fact-checked.)

Donald Trump gesturing with his right hand, pointing up and to the right with a bent elbow, during a speech to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in 2016. Alex Wong/Getty

The Johnson Amendment is about churches — and a lot of other organizations

The Johnson Amendment doesn’t only target churches. About a million and a half organizations in the US are registered as tax-exempt. As of May 2016, only 312,373 of those were congregations (which includes congregations of all religions).

As the Internal Revenue Service interprets the Johnson Amendment, tax-exempt organizations — that is, those which fall under the 501(c)(3) designation — include “religious, educational, charitable, scientific, literary, testing for public safety, to foster national or international sports competition, or prevention of cruelty to children or animals organizations,” according to IRS code. That includes fraternities, civic leagues, and chambers of commerce.

Such an organization “may not attempt to influence legislation as a substantial part of its activities and it may not participate in any campaign activity for or against political candidates.”

Interestingly, the Donald J. Trump Foundation is a 501(c)(3) organization, as is the Clinton Foundation.

The Johnson Amendment has been a special interest of the right-wing Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a legal fund that litigates on behalf of conservative Christian causes. A blog post on the organization’s website mirrors Pence’s take, but with a stronger statement about actual endorsement:

Historically, churches frequently spoke for and against candidates for government office. Such sermons date from the founding of the United States, including those against Thomas Jefferson for being a deist and sermons opposing William Howard Taft as a Unitarian. Churches have also been at the forefront of most of the significant societal and governmental changes in our history, including ending segregation and child labor, and advancing civil rights.

The ADF maintains that the amendment unconstitutionally restricts the First Amendment rights of pastors and churches (an argument that is disputed by others) as well as the Free Exercise clause in the Constitution, which states that Congress cannot make laws that keeps people from freely exercising their religion.

The ADF’s blog post concludes on what might be a surprising note:

After the 1954 Johnson Amendment, churches faced a choice: speak freely on all issues addressed by Scripture and potentially risk their tax exemption, or remain silent and protect their tax-exempt status. Unfortunately, many churches have silenced their speech, even from the pulpit. Ironically, after 60-plus years of the IRS strictly interpreting the amendment, there is no reported situation where a church lost its tax-exempt status or was punished for sermons delivered from the pulpit. Nonetheless, the law remains unchanged and many churches remain silent due to the IRS’s interpretation of the amendment.

That is, the Johnson Amendment is rarely enforced. And it has never been actually used to strip a congregation of its 501(c)(3) status.

It is challenged at times, though. For instance, in 2014, Houston Mayor Annise Parker subpoenaed five sermons from churches in her city. After widespread outcry, Parker dropped the subpoena. Though, interestingly, the story is referenced in the successful 2016 Christian film God’s Not Dead 2 and teased as the probable plot for the inevitable God’s Not Dead 3.

So it’s easy to reason that in the background of Trump’s sudden interest in the laws about speech in tax-exempt status for churches is the specific case in Houston, which rattled congregations across the country, in which clergy are understandably reticent to submit their sermons for approval every week.

But the Pence’s argument also rests on the idea that churches and other congregations are restricting their speech for fear of something that has not happened.

And there’s at least a few additionally disingenuous matters in Pence’s statements about civil rights, the Revolution, and slavery (even leaving aside the campaign’s and the GOP’s handling of matters around race): As it’s practiced, the Johnson Amendment would never have kept clergy from preaching that slavery — the practice of one human owning another human — is a violation of God’s law. It would just keep them from endorsing Abraham Lincoln.

The ad points to the waning influence of the old religious right — and that they know it

But that fact that some churches even showed the Pence ad is an indicator of the state of the Johnson Amendment. (Under the IRS’s interpretation, 501(c)(3) organizations are allowed to provide a forum for candidates, which “is not, in and of itself, prohibited political activity,” so this may technically fall under that provision. But without an accompanying voice from the Clinton campaign, this seems a bit blurry — especially with Pence’s hard sell for a Trump vote.)

More interestingly, the Pence video articulates what the Trump/Pence campaign thinks is important to the evangelical voter. Since the Reagan era, white evangelicals have been a solid and reliable voting bloc, but that has been thrown into question during this election, largely because of Trump. Pence does take pains to underline his own personal common ground with congregants’ faith — while not mentioning Trump’s — and talks briefly about Supreme Court appointments, two points rooted in traditional conservative Christian conviction.

Trump Ralph Freso/Getty Images

But the third seems tied to the decline of the traditional religious right as embodied in aging leaders like James Dobson and Jerry Falwell, who no longer hold the same sort of influence over evangelicals and, by extension, the political establishment as they did in their heyday.

The former moral majority is giving way to what is increasingly being called the “moral minority,” a term some younger evangelicals and their leaders — like Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore — are embracing. “Moore thinks that the idea of a moral majority is wrong, and was probably wrong when it was created: he suspects that earnest, orthodox Christians have always been outnumbered,” Kelefa Sanneh wrote of Moore in the November 7, 2016, issue of the New Yorker. “Like any believer, he wants his church to grow, but he doesn’t seem particularly threatened by the thought that it might not.”

However, that same loss of power, which has been going on for a while, does threaten some leaders. And Trump and Pence have managed to identify this and find a way to tap into it: suggesting the Johnson Amendment is to blame for churches’ declining influence. At the meeting of evangelical leaders in June, Trump spoke further:

And I say to you folks, because you have such power, such influence. Unfortunately the government has weeded it away from you pretty strongly. But you’re going to get it back. Remember this: If you ever add up, the men and women here are the most important, powerful lobbyists. You’re more powerful. Because you have men and women, you probably have something like 75, 80 percent of the country believing. But you don’t use your power. You don’t use your power…

You used to go to church, and you know, when I’d go there … It’s much different today. I know, as an example, the young people aren’t going as much.

But we have to bring that back. We have to bring those values back. We have to bring that spirit back. And in a way, it’s been taken away from you by the federal government and by these horrendous things that have been allowed in the past. But just remember this: You are the most powerful group in this country. But you have to realize that. You have to band together. You have to band together. If you don’t band together, you’re really not powerful. You have a powerful church. I see it. I see some of these incredible pastors and ministers and people that speak so brilliantly. And I see it. But they’re great within their audience, but then outside they don’t have it. You have to band together as a group. And if you do that, you will bring it back like nothing has ever been brought back.

Power, as the Trump campaign sees it, is the greatest good — and it’s what has been stolen from churches. The way to please churches is to bring power back.

Ironically, it’s become increasingly clear that Donald Trump’s candidacy has created rifts that may keep the group from ever “banding back together.” Near the end of the ad, Pence quotes the Pledge of Allegiance — “one nation, under God” — but it’s hard not to think about Lincoln quoting Mark 3:25, that a house divided itself cannot stand. That’s something no five-minute Sunday morning ad can fix.