Are We Witnessing Remaking of Religion in America?

If you’ve never heard of the Blaine or Johnson amendments, you might want to check them out. Before they’re gone.


A quick primer: Blaine is an 1875 legislative oddity aimed at outlawing the use of federal funding for religious education – oddity in that while it failed passage at the federal level, backers were successful in persuading 38 states to adopt their own ban on underwriting private, sectarian education. (More background: the original amendment was a bigoted response to the increasing number of Catholic schools in the US.)

Named for the president-to-be who shepherded it through Congress in 1954, the Johnson Amendment was crafted to require all 501(c)(3) tax-exempt entities (including religious organizations) to refrain from endorsing candidates for office.

Taken together, Blaine and Johnson have served as the primary firewalls against state-sponsored religious education, and religious entities as de facto fronts for political/corporate dark money.

But despite their longstanding status as precedents for church-state legal cases and practice, both have come under fire over the past three decades, mostly at the hands of hard-right clergy, lobbies and Beltway champions.

The conservative quest to be rid of Blaine and Johnson has of course been enjoined by a sympathetic administration bent on keeping its base. Trump has on more than one occasion sworn to dismantle what remains of the much-maligned wall of separation; and has delivered on that promise in spades by filling the stolen Supreme Court vacancy with a proven “low-waller” and constitutional textualist.

Thanks to a solid majority of Republican state executives and legislatures ready to join the fray against Blaine – a la Missouri Republican Gov. Eric Greitens’ decision to allow the use of state dollars to spruce up a church play area – Team Trump can take credit for “returning religious freedom to America” without lifting a manicured finger.

But Trump is not satisfied to let his new judge and state officials do all the heavy work in demolishing other tenets of church-state relations. According to a draft executive order leaked in early February, Trump plans to create an exemption protecting non-exempt status for any otherwise qualified organization that “... believes, speaks, or acts (or declines to act) in accordance with the belief that marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman, sexual relations are properly reserved for such a marriage, male and female and their equivalents refer to an individual’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy, physiology, or genetics at or before birth, and that human life begins at conception and merits protection at all stages of life.”

Opponents of the draft have been vehement in challenging the draft’s constitutionality, citing First Amendment rights. Additional arguments have been formulated on the basis of the executive’s power to sanction discriminatory practices essentially based on a particular theological viewpoint.

It’s sobering to witness the almost certain roll-back of Blaine and Johnson. Their demise will likely translate to houses of worship selectively supplemented by public dollars, free to influence elections in direct fashion.

Equally chilling are the leaked pseudo-religious words of a consistently bigoted president – words that in one form or another may eventually become law.

All of which beg a very dark question: Are we witnessing the remaking of religion in America?

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