***UPDATE, 10/14/2016: This article was written prior to the recent tapes of Mr. Trump speaking crude and objectifying words against women. As a result of these revelations, I have decided I will not be as vocal in my defense of Donald Trump as I was previously. Such words can never be condoned, no matter how liberal and one-sided the media reporting has become. Nonetheless, I feel it also necessary to clarify that I will still be voting for Mr. Trump come November. A Trump presidency is clearly preferable to a Clinton presidency, whose platform stands is direct conflict with the Catholic Church. Not only is Mrs. Clinton and her cabinet anti-Catholic on principle, they are anti-Catholic in their hearts (confirmed by the recent email leaks), which proposes an even greater threat to the Church in America.***
A viewer once wrote in a question to EWTN asking the following; “why [doesn’t] the Catholic Church come out and directly support a candidate.” In response to this question, Fr. Robert Levis candidly said that “Generally our American bishops advise us priests never to mention individuals running for office by name, lest we lose our tax exemption. But they insist that we preach issues.” Fr. Levis then explained how important it is not to question the law because “if we lose our exemption, I see almost infinite harm resulting.”
Fr. Levis is correct of course in that priests ought to “talk about the issues” whenever they broach politics (if they did, they would bring much clarity to the laity and, more often than not, make their choice a simple one). However, I fear not even this is happening.
Let me explain. Notice if you will the statement above, “If we lose our exemption, I see almost infinite harm resulting.” This comment is somewhat concerning, because it suggests that he and other Catholic leaders in America are operating from a position of fear and intimidation, which may be coloring their coverage of the elections. After all, if you believe that “infinite harm” would result should you speak freely on political issues, then it is not surprising you would be afraid to broach politics. It is not surprising why you would walk a careful balance—why you would take pains to avoid even the slightest favor toward a candidate. If you really believed infinite harm would befall you, you might even risk keeping Catholics ignorant on the issues, and present a muddled and politically correct analysis of the candidates, lest this supposed greater evil result.
This sentiment, I fear, may be more widespread than I had realized. As I followed the 2016 presidential elections, I began wondering if our clergy and Catholic news sources are being intimidated from speaking freely in the political arena (Note, this doesn’t mean they should necessarily endorse one candidate over another. This does mean, however, they should speak freely on issues most relevant to Catholics, and in proportion to their relevancy to Catholic moral theology, ethics, and social teaching). In fact, watching EWTN News or reading CNA articles on the elections is almost like watching an acrobat carefully balancing on a tight rope. There almost seems to have been a deliberate effort to give both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump equal airtime, and present both as equally viable, or rather, equally undesirable candidates (even though one clearly supports abortion, Planned Parenthood, taxes to fund abortions, the limiting of religious freedom, and other culture-of-death policies, while the other is running on an opposite platform). Rather than “talking about the issues”—that is, about policy and platform, especially those most grave and non-negotiable on abortion and the sanctity of human life—an inordinate emphasis seems to have been placed rather on personality and the day-to-day human drama.
In fact, as of the date of this article, I have only seen three prominent Catholic voices speak clearly “about the issues;” Carl Anderson (Supreme Knights from the Knights of Columbus), Marjorie Dannenfelser (Susan B. Anthony Group), and Father Frank Pavone (Priests for Life). All three have rightfully put the abortion issue in its proper place in the elections—namely, above all other issues combined—and have justly concluded that one candidate and party platform is clearly better than the other. Three people.
So the question must be asked, why? What could possibly cause faithful and well-intentioned Catholics to seemingly capitulate, to an extent, to the influences of the world and of the mainstream media? (And it is important that we pose this question to our bishops, because they are our shepherds; they set the precedent for EWTN and other lay-run organizations to follow). The only possible explanation I can see—not accounting for a possible formational deficiency—is this law in question, the same law that has convinced our Catholics leaders that “infinite harm” would result should it even be questioned.
So let us examine this law for a moment. So lets dig a little deeper and see what we can learn about it.
The Johnson Amendment
The law in question is called the Johnson Amendment. It was passed in 1954 by president Lyndon B. Johnson, whose sole reason for doing so (which is common knowledge) was to prevent two organizations from lobbying against his election. In other words, it was political. It had nothing to do with religious liberty. This was a secondary effect that occurred over time.
Defenders of the law say it’s not as bad as it sounds, that it’s not that restrictive. And besides, the IRS doesn’t really enforce it. There have only been a couple major cases the IRS took up, one in 1992, and one in 2009 (UPDATE: Evidently, Catholic Answers was also fined by the IRS by telling people not to vote for John Kerry for supporting Communion for pro-abortion politicians). So the law really doesn’t have much power, so they say. But in recent times, certain democrats have been calling for the IRS to enforce the law. And the IRS has been compelled to monitor Church activity for this reason.
Defenders of this law would like us to believe it is not as bad as it sounds. But if one reads its wording carefully, it is actually worse than it sounds. It not only censors direct endorsement of a candidate, but it also censors even the impression of an endorsement i.e., anything that causes a “net effect” of an endorsement. In other words, EWTN doesn’t have to say “Trump is clearly a better choice than Hillary.” All it has to do is talk about the issues most relevant to Catholics and in proportion to their gravity and moral evil, and its done. As the law states;
“On the other hand, voter education or registration activities with evidence of bias that (a) would favor one candidate over another; (b) oppose a candidate in some manner; or (c) have the effect of favoring a candidate or group of candidates, will constitute prohibited participation or intervention.”
Notice the wording above. Any activity that has a “the effect of favoring a candidate” will be liable to punishment by the US government. In other words, put abortion in its proper place, talk about it more than other issues, and that’s it. The net effect favors Trump over Hillary. You have just violated the law and are now subject to punishment.
“Not as bad as it sounds?” This sounds like one of the worst violations of religious liberty of our time—entirely unconstitutional and unethical. And what is worse, prior to 1954, bishops and priests were not afraid of speaking about candidates from the pulpit. It seems that this law has effectively silenced the Catholic Church from weighing in on the political landscape. And many seminarians are trained to not broach the issue from the pulpit (Granted, politics should take a back seat in preaching homilies. But during an election season—which only comes once every four years—priests should not be afraid to help their flock understand the issues, and bring clarity to the Catholic position).
So, could this law be reason why Catholic leaders do not even seem to “preach on the issues” by giving each its proper weight? Are they so afraid of this law that they avoid even tiptoeing near its limits (and thus risk keeping Catholics ignorant on Catholic principles)? Or perhaps there is a deeper formation issue involved here? Maybe our Catholic leaders do not realize just how important the abortion issue really is?
Whatever the case may be, there is a ray of hope to this story. For the first time since 1954, a presidential candidate has placed a bulls-eye on this unconstitutional law. He has targeted it, and has pledged to abolish it if he is elected president. Indeed, Donald Trump is giving Catholics a ray of hope on religious liberty in America. And if our Catholic leaders were smart, they would invest more time and resources in fighting this law together with Trump, rather than acquiescing to it.
As we know, the alternative is simple: Continue to balance on the tight rope, to operate out of fear, to fail to bring clarity to the issues and thus discourage 81 million Catholics in America from voting (nearly 25% of the population). Continue on this path, and the net effect is not pretty; it will result in Hillary Clinton getting elected, whose platform is fundamentally opposed to Catholic values. And it will thus perpetuate unjust law in our country.