Analysis: Trump falsely claims there was little religious freedom before his election
WASHINGTON — In his National Day of Prayer speech on Thursday, President Trump focused on how much the United States has changed since his election, particularly for people of faith. The president, who won a large majority of white evangelical Christians and white Catholic voters in 2016, spoke about how difficult life had been for religious Americans before he entered the Oval Office.
“One of the things I’m most proud of,” he said, “is the Johnson amendment. You can now speak your mind — and speak it freely. I said I was going to do that… . That was one of the things I said. They took away your voice politically, and these are the people I want to listen to politically. But you weren’t allowed to speak — they would lose their tax exempt status. That’s not happening anymore, we got rid of the Johnson amendment. That’s a big thing.”
Candidate Trump promised to address those anxieties, championing a handful of issues important to evangelical voters. For example, he frequently pledged to end the Johnson amendment, a federal law that prohibits houses of worship, charitable nonprofits and private foundations from officially endorsing, opposing or financially supporting political candidates and parties. Trump spoke often about the Johnson amendment on the trail.
As president he has repeatedly, falsely claimed to have gotten rid of it. But he hasn’t.
“Trump’s failure to eliminate the Johnson Amendment is not for lack of will. Members of Congress pursued similar goals to the president, attempting to include language that would weaken the law as part of the tax reform bill, but that effort ultimately failed,” David Saperstein, a rabbi and former U.S. ambassador at large for international religious freedom, and Amanda Tyler, the executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, previously wrote in The Washington Post. “And at one point, Trump described his goal of eliminating the prohibition on election activity as potentially his ‘greatest contribution to Christianity — and other religions.’ “
He also said that “people are so proud to be using that beautiful word ‘God.’ And they’re using the word ‘God’ again and they’re not hiding from it. And they’re not being told to take it down and they’re not saying, ‘We can’t honor God.’ In God, we trust. So important.”
Trump claimed that before he took office, “people were not allowed or in some cases, foolishly ashamed to be using on stores ‘Merry Christmas, Happy Christmas.’ They’d say ‘Happy Holidays.’ They’d have red walls and you’d never see ‘Christmas.’ That was four years ago.”
“Take a look at your stores nowadays. It’s all ‘Merry Christmas’ again. They’re proud of it. I always said, ‘You’re going to be saying “Merry Christmas” again.’ And that’s what happened.”
Most of these claims are exaggerated or inaccurate. But they echo a message shared widely among religious conservatives: that Christians in America are under attack by liberals and Democrats.
It’s a talking point that gained significant ground during the Obama administration. “Several major conservative political pundits and organizations have made a name for themselves by selectively highlighting cases of alleged persecution of Christians,” Alan Noble, an English professor at Oklahoma Baptist University, wrote for The Atlantic back in 2014. “The most well-known example is the so-called ‘war on Christmas,’ which is predicated on the claim that the holiday has been secularized by retailers’ marketing choices. Fox News has a reputation for running these sensationalized stories of suspected or alleged discrimination.”
Trump did sign an executive order in 2017 that supporters say makes it easier for churches to participate in politics. But critics called it vague and nowhere near as broad in its changes as Trump promised they’d be when courting conservative Christians.
Those details and facts likely won’t matter much to the conservative people of faith backing Trump. White evangelical support for the president has stayed sold since he entered office. For them, the fact that the president talks the talk may matter as much as whether he walks the walk.