Church, State and Ethics in the Era of Trump

Church, State and Ethics in the Era of Trump
Remarks for discussion by Rev Harry Parrott D. Min
June 1, 2017 in Palm Coast. FL

Donald Trump has been our President just over four months. He is a mystery in the area of his religious concerns and sensibilities. Like most politicians, he presents himself as a religious person, calling himself a Presbyterian, I believe. But others note his lack of religious practice and basic religious knowledge, and suggest that — in fact — he may be our first atheist President. At present we don’t know. What we do know is that in the election last November, over 80% of Christians who self-identify as Evangelicals overwhelmingly voted for Trump. Many of these — not all — would also self-identify as members of the Christian Right or Religious Right, that is, Evangelicals much involved in far-right political activities. So our newly-elected President —whatever he personally believes — is now committed to rewarding those evangelicals who greatly contributed to his electoral victory. So it’s not surprising that to the extent that he talks of religion at all, he speaks the language of the Religious Right (and chose a far-right running mate in Gov. Pence). Let’s look at church-state and ethical issues in the era of Trump.

First, Trump loudly proclaims that he will “destroy” the Johnson Amendment. This “Amendment” goes back to the 1950’s, and — from my perspective — protects the integrity of tax-exempt houses of worship by mandating that they shall not endorse or oppose specific political candidates. The Johnson Amendment says that if a congregation or pastor (as leader of that congregation) endorses a specific candidate, the congregation could lose its tax-exempt status. The Religious Right sees it differently, of course, and complains that a religious leader or congregation should have every right to endorse specific candidates as a matter of freedom of expression. Indeed, over the past several years, ultra-conservative pastors have been urged to deliberately make endorsements from the pulpit, and dare anyone to ask the IRS to investigate. So Trump has joined the chorus, claiming that this Amendment “muzzles” religious leaders, and keeps them from providing moral leadership.

It’s obvious that the President knows little about this subject. Regarding moral leadership, for example, I can testify (as a pastor for 37 years) that religious leaders are free to teach and preach on any moral or ethical issue. There is no reservation whatsoever, except that of specifically endorsing a candidate. Why? Because that endorsement transforms a religious congregation into a cog in a political machine. Or take the matter of who wants the Johnson Amendment destroyed. Trump claims that religious people oppose the law and are clamoring to have it repealed. This is pure fiction. Earlier this year, 99 religious and denominational organizations sent a letter to Congress supporting the Johnson Amendment, and urging members of Congress to keep it in place. And an Evangelical Leaders Survey in March 2017 showed that 89% of evangelical leaders do not think that pastors should endorse politicians from the pulpit. The fact is that Americans — overwhelmingly — do not want their religious leaders telling them who to vote for, or allowing their churches to become part of a political organization. (see website of Americans United for Separation of Church and State,

Secondly, the Muslim Ban. Throughout the campaign Trump promised to solve the problem of terrorism which he identified with the religion of Islam. So as one of his first acts in the Oval Office he signed an Executive Order, now called the “Muslim Ban”. It was almost immediately challenged in court, and put on hold. The administration changed the wording and tried again. But on May 25th, 2017 the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a preliminary injunction on this second attempt, calling the Order blatantly unconstitutional and clearly a matter of religious discrimination. The court opinion calls the Muslim Ban 2.0 an Order that “speaks with vague words of national security, but in context drips with religious intolerance, animus, and discrimination”. Further, the opinion notes that “improper government involvement with religion ‘tends to destroy government and to degrade religion,’ encourage persecution of religious minorities and nonbelievers, and foster hostility and division in our pluralistic society.” Clearly, the First Amendment prohibition against religious discrimination means nothing to Trump and his administration when it comes to the religion of Islam.

Thirdly, Betsy DeVos and “School Choice”. When Trump chose Betsy DeVos to head the U.S. Dept of Education, the choice was widely condemned. He chose a person who has demonstrated no concern whatever for the public school system, even though our public schools educate over 90% of American children. Her lifetime advocacy is “school choice”, that is, supporting charter schools and school voucher programs, to give parents “choice”, and to directly challenge the public school system. In her home state of Michigan, DeVos and family have been tireless advocates for charter schools (since voucher programs are prohibited by the Michigan state constitution). As you know, charter schools divert tax-payer money away from public schools, charter schools are free to discriminate among applicants, charter schools operate with little accountability, and the educational results are problematic.

After DeVos was confirmed, Stephen Henderson, an editorial writer for the Detroit Free Press, wrote an excellent article about the DeVos family’s advocacy for Charter Schools in Michigan over many years. Millions of the family fortune have been spent to lobby for more and more charters (Michigan has among the highest number of charter in the nation), millions to keep educational oversight as minimal as possible, and millions more in 2000 in a failed effort to change the state Constitution so vouchers could be allowed. (Voucher programs are especially attractive to religious conservatives who hunger for tax-payer money to fund schools which teach their brand of religion).

Henderson writes in the Detroit Free Press: “Largely as a result of the DeVos lobbying, Michigan tolerates more low-performing charter schools than just about any other state. And it lacks any effective mechanism for shutting down, or even improving, failing charters. …Just about anyone can open a charter school if they can raise the money…(O)nce a charter school opens in Michigan, it’s free to operate for as long as it wants, and is seldom held accountable by state officials for its performance. …The results of this free-for-all have been tragic for Michigan children, and especially for those in Detroit, where 79% of the state’s charters are located. “ Perhaps the result of Trump’s choice will be tragic for all American children.

Item Four: The Trump Budget: Every proposed budget is a moral and ethical statement. Who are the winners and losers in this budget? Some of the winners are: 1) the military, with the addition of $469 billion to defense spending over the next decade. 2) Border security, with $2.6 billion for border security, including a wall which U.S. taxpayers will pay for. 3) The elderly, since the budget does nothing to address Social Security or Medicare benefits, even though both programs are on track to become insolvent in the coming decades. 4) Veterans, with an increase for the V.A, including $29 billion over the next decade for the Choice program which allows vets to seek outside medical care from private doctors. 5) New parents: budget includes a new paid leave program for parents of newborn children, allowing mothers and fathers to take up to six weeks of paid leave after adoption or birth of child. The budget summary says the program is fully paid for but includes only $19 billion over the next decade. Other winners are doctors (malpractice jury awards are capped); and Medicare and Medicaid fraud prevention efforts get $70 million increase next year.

Losers in the Trump budget are: 1) The poor, since the budget would slash Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program by $616 billion over the next decade, programs which provide health insurance for millions of poor families. 2) The poor, part II: The food stamp program would be cut by $191 billion over the next decade. 3) The poor, part III: The TANF program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, cut by $22 billion over the next decade. 4) The Disabled: The budget calls for cutting Social Security disability benefits by nearly $70 billion over the next decade by encouraging and, in some cases, requiring people receiving the benefits to re-enter the workforce. 5) Planned Parenthood: the budget would prohibit any funding for certain entities that provide abortions, including Planned Parenthood. 6) The Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay: The budget would eliminate the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and Chesapeake Bay Program, saving $427 million next year. 7) The National Institutes of Health: The budget for the premier medical research agency is to be cut by 18 percent, to $26 billion. 8) The Centers for Disease Control and prevention: This agency which fights everything from AIDS to Zika, sees its budget cut 18% to $6.3 billion. [Information from PBS Newshour: Stephen Ohlemacher, May 23, 2017]

What we are seeing in this budget is an attempted major re-alignment of the government’s role in society. As the Washington Post put it on May 23, 2017: “Aside from national defense…Trump’s plan would put the onus on states, companies, churches and charities to offer many educational, scientific and social services that have long been provided by the federal government.” It remains to be seen whether the American people desire this — or will allow this — to happen?

Item Five: Reproductive Rights. Under the Affordable Care Act, the Obama administration mandated that many religious employers provide birth control coverage in health insurance plans. This was hotly contested by some employers who hold the ultra-conservative theological view that the use of “artificial” birth control is sinful conduct. The issue, they say, is one of “religious liberty” i.e. to allow employers to live by their beliefs. Now, the Trump administration has drafted a rule to roll back this federal requirement altogether. Once again, the Trump administration aligns itself with the view of religious conservatives who argue that their theological view must prevail, no matter how many persons are impacted.

The Americans College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists strongly supports the original mandate, arguing that “access to contraception is a medical necessity for women during approximately 30 years of their lives”. And Democrats in Congress have vowed to fight to preserve the mandate, saying it has benefited over 50 million women. In May, Senator Patty Murray and 13 other Democratic senators wrote to Mick Mulvaney, White House budget director, warning him to cease efforts that will “undermine access to affordable preventive services, including contraception, for women.” The letter pointed out that “women saved more than $1.4 billion in out-of-pocket costs for birth control in 2013 alone” [New York Times, May 27, 2017]. This issue is a powerful demonstration that religious conservatives, once in a position of political power, do not hesitate to translate their theological views into political policy.

Item six: Unleashing the Demons. All in all, perhaps the most frightening and pervasive outcome of the Trump election is the “new normal” of ugliness and vulgarity in our political discourse. Literally, the demons of hate and bigotry have been set free. The Donald Trump style is aggressive and bullying, insulting and demeaning, and such words are now expected from the White House on a regular basis, and vigorously defended by the President’s team (he is just defending himself). But writing for the Pittsburg Tribune-Review, Joseph Sabino Mistick put it this way on February 23: “Hate begets hate. You cannot light the fuse and then act like you are not responsible when the bomb goes off. Donald Trump has lit those fuses for years. This is not a new thing for him. And while it was dangerous talk when he was a private citizen, now that he is in the White House, it can blow the country apart.”

Giving face to this new reality is Trump’s appointment to high office of persons known for attitudes of intolerance and bigotry. The Intelligence Report of the Southern Poverty Law Center reminds us that Kenneth Blackwell, Gen. Mike Flynn, Mike Pompeo, and Stephen Bannon bring into the heart of the Administration virulent anti-LGBT, anti-Muslim, and white supremacy points of view. The article details how Trump’s candidacy electrified extreme-right political movements in the U.S., and how his victory gave immediate permission to those wanting to lash out with acts of intimidation and violence. Examples abound. (Spring issue 2017 pp 32ff).

I end with these words from the article. “Donald Trump is not legally responsible for any of this” (acts of hate and violence)…”But it seems undeniable that Trump’s reckless, populist campaign has left a legacy of hatred, violence and division”.

Harry B Parrott D.Min

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