On Thursday, 4 May 2017, President Donald Trump issued an executive order to the IRS, instructing it to “exercise maximum enforcement discretion to alleviate the burden” of the 1954 Johnson Amendment, a tax provision that prohibits churches from endorsing or contributing to political candidates or parties. The amendment has never truly been enforced, but the threat that it might have hung over churches ominously for nearly sixty-three years.
Writing in National Review, David French characterized this move as “dangerous nothingness,” noting that the executive order could be repealed under a future administration. While the threat of future repeal is certainly true–and while sections of the executive order are, as French writes, meaningless on the surface–the writer greatly exaggerates the danger of this order. Instead of looking at the order as a purely symbolic move that strengthens the notion of executive rule-by-fiat, it should be understood as the first step toward repeal of an odious amendment.
It is important–and, perhaps, apropos, given the topic is religious liberty–to remember that symbolic moves do have power. Even if President Trump’s executive order only provides marginal relief from IRS bullying, it suggests a dramatically different stance toward religious liberty compared to the previous administration. That alone should energize the faithful to push Congress for more–including the full, congressional repeal of the Johnson Amendment.
Take the executive order as a step in the right direction. It’s not permanent or concrete enough to be the ultimate victory, but it’s a positive move–and it’s not “nothing”.