Robert P. George

Fightin' words and confusion surrounding Trump's shot at the Johnson Amendment

Fightin' words and confusion surrounding Trump's shot at the Johnson Amendment

There was nothing new about the Rev. Jerry Johnson talking about abortion, gay rights and other hot-button moral issues during sermons at the Central Baptist Church of Aurora, outside Denver.

But on this particular Sunday in the mid-1990s, Johnson mentioned President Bill Clinton, noting his liberal take on several issues. Later, several laypeople told him he had risked the church's tax-exempt status -- by mentioning the president's name in the pulpit. Americans United for Separation of Church and State had just begun circulating letters warning religious leaders against endorsing or opposing candidates.

Two decades later, Johnson leads the National Religious Broadcasters and he still thinks preachers should have the right to say whatever they want about faith and politics, even if that includes letting believers know what they think of candidates. Whether pulpit endorsements are wise or necessary is another matter, he said.

"Speech is speech and free speech is free speech," said Johnson. "The question isn't whether it's wise or not for church leaders to endorse candidates, the question is who gets to make that decision. If the answer is the government, then that's the old Soviet answer, that's the answer you get in China. If the church gets to make that decision, then there's your First Amendment answer, right there."

Thus, Johnson was among those celebrating President Donald Trump's executive order telling Internal Revenue Service officials not to "take any adverse action against any individual, house of worship, or other religious organization" that endorses candidates. Those actions were banned in the mid-1950s by the rarely enforced Johnson Amendment, engineered by Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson, who wanted to corral his opponents in secular and religious nonprofit groups.

Yes, an executive order is not the same thing as Congress overturning the Johnson Amendment, said Johnson. The NRB leader also knows that Trump didn't really address the rising tide of First Amendment clashes between religious believers -- such as wedding photographers, cake bakers and florists -- and discrimination claims by LGBTQ activists.

Life after 2016 and the 'lesser of two evils' wars among religious conservatives

Life after 2016 and the 'lesser of two evils' wars among religious conservatives

As the 2016 White House race unfolded, the Facebook home of one of Princeton University's best-known scholars was packed with cries for help.

The battle lines were clear. Religious conservatives wanted to know if they had to choose between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Was picking the "lesser of two evils" still evil? Was it morally wrong to refuse to choose?

Robert P. George made his own convictions clear.

"If you truth bomb Trump but go silent on Clinton, shame on you," wrote George, an outspoken Catholic and distinguished professor of jurisprudence at Princeton. "If you truth bomb Clinton but go silent on Trump, shame on you. Whole truth!" In another salvo he added: "A ghastly choice for Catholics & others: One will taint and bring disgrace on our moral values. The other will wage unrelenting war on them."

With Election Day drawing near, George finally republished a note from June, pleading for charity in these arguments.

"Friends, we are in a terrible fix here. And it is putting some of us at each other's throats. It must not be permitted to do that. Donald Trump is dreadful. Hillary Clinton is horrible. One called for the killing of the innocent family members of terrorists. The other promises to protect the killing of unborn babies up to the point of birth," he wrote.

"For some of us, it just isn't obvious which of these two scoundrels would do greater harm in the long run," he argued. Whatever happens, those "who believe in limited government, constitutional fidelity and the Rule of law, flourishing institutions of civil society, traditional principles of morality, and the like are going to have profoundly important work to do. And we will need to do it together."

Yes, Republicans face what many are predicting will be a "civil war" between Trump insurgents and the party establishment, said George, in a telephone interview.