Today’s proposed executive order is all about money. Don’t let anyone fool you that it’s about a broader principle of “religious liberty.” Money is a form of power, and the point of today’s exercise is to remove limitations on employing money in pursuit of political goals. The benefits, such as they may be, will accrue to those who already hold both money and power. If you’re a minority religion, that’s not you.
The Johnson Amendment is about the tax code. This executive order – although no one has seen the exact proposed text yet – is at least in part a directive to the IRS, which enforces the tax code. If you’re doing something that doesn’t involve money, then the IRS has nothing to do with you. In the end, this is about money, and about redistributing more money and power to those who already hold the majority of both.
I am not a lawyer and I don’t even play one on the internet. My layperson’s summary is as follows: Religious organizations can become tax exempt, based at least in part on an idea that they are doing socially beneficial endeavors that the government is not doing. But the limitation is that religious organizations cannot then turn around and use those tax-exempt dollars to fund and promote explicitly political speech. Taken at the organizational level, one can talk about whether such political action is substantial or incidental to the organization’s actions, but the upshot is that people cannot use a platform paid for with tax-exempt dollars – such as a pulpit in a church building – to make explicitly political speech. Those same people can make that same speech in another venue, as long as it is clear that they are not using the financial resources of the tax-exempt organization to support or promote that speech.
The religious right wants you to imagine that poor, well-meaning men of God (and yes, they are almost all very specifically men of their male deity) are being forbidden from teaching the dictates of their religion. This is a lie.
It’s a lie because those people are not prevented from teaching their religion using their religious resources, nor are they prevented from expressing themselves politically using their political resources. It’s just that they can’t mix the two. Your local evangelical preacher can’t take the dollars collected in the offering plate on Sunday and use those dollars to erect a sign that says “Jesus Loves Trump.” If he can raise the money in some way that doesn’t come through his church, sure, he can put that sign up. On private property. Using private money. That has paid taxes, just like everyone else, in order to support the common good. (Trust me, when your local preacher listens to Rush Limbaugh, no one has any doubts about that preacher’s political views.)
This isn’t about speech. It’s about dollars.
Second, this pitiable image is a lie not only in theory but in practice. Conservative Christians have been explicitly challenging this boundary for years with little to no resistance, governmental or otherwise. The IRS has been extremely lax in actually following up on even cases of religiously-funded speech deliberately designed to flout this law. Americans United for Separation of Church and State has been following this problem, so check them out to discover more.
Neo-Pagan financial resources are vanishingly small compared to other groups. (Whether that is right, or good, or the way things have to be, is a discussion for another time.) Compared to even a small Christian denomination, we don’t just run on a shoestring, we run on a spider’s thread. How many Pagan organizations do you know that own real estate? (A Pagan shop that puts on events and hosts classes isn’t owned by a tax-exempt organization, so keep that in mind.) We are not the ones who have the money; it’s not our money that has been restricted, so it’s not our money that is being “freed,” so don’t even begin to hope that this move will “benefit” minority religions.
This grandstanding is yet another example of the great conservative tradition of punching down. That’s nothing to celebrate.