On Thursday morning, as part of National Day of Prayer festivities at the White House, President Donald Trump signed an executive order he said delivered on a campaign promise to evangelical leaders. The order instructs the Internal Revenue Service not to enforce the Johnson Amendment, a 50-year-old law banning pastors from making endorsements from the pulpit.
The order essentially calls for the end of a law that's never been enforced.
First Baptist Church Dallas Pastor Robert Jeffress, who pushed Trump throughout the campaign to repeal the Johnson Amendment to remove the threat that it could be used as a cudgel against pastors.
Jeffress is controversial, having repeatedly linked homosexuality to pedophilia and called Catholicism and "Babylonian mystery religion" inspired by Satan. Wednesday night, Trump invited Jeffress and some of his fellow pastors to the White House before signing the executive order. “Mr. President, we're going to be your most loyal friends,” Jeffress said at the dinner. “We’re going to be your enthusiastic supporters. And we thank God every day that you're the president of the United States."
After the president issued the order Thursday morning, Jeffress praised it as a promise kept, despite the fact that the Johnson Amendment is still on the books.
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Despite Jeffress' praise, many evangelicals were less than satisfied with Trump's gesture. Russell Moore the Southern Baptist Convention's head of public police, said "much, much more work is needed, especially from Congress." The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, which has strongly pushed back against the potential repeal of the Johnson Amendment, pointed out that, while the order was "largely symbolic," it does say something about the president's worldview.
"This order appears to be a largely symbolic act, voicing concern for religious liberty but offering nothing to advance it. Worse, it is further evidence that President Trump wants churches to be vehicles for political campaigns," said Amanda Tyler, the group's executive director. "Americans think changing the tax law to encourage churches to endorse and oppose political candidates with tax-deductible contributions is a terrible idea. But some politicians and a few interest groups looking to solidify their political power continues to push it to further their agenda."
There is a law being considered that would repeal the Johnson amendment entirely. Called the Free Speech Fairness Act, Texas' state leadership has pushed Congress to pass it. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton took the opportunity presented by Trump's executive order to push for the bill again Thursday afternoon. "Today’s executive order by President Trump is an important first step to protect our country’s first liberty – religious liberty," Paxton said in a statement. "We can guarantee that the voices of churches and people of faith reclaim their rightful place in our democracy."