Donald Trump has been routinely accusing former President Lyndon Johnson of silencing the political speech of churches because he viewed churches as political enemies. This is false. Trump’s presidential campaign may be doomed to defeat, but this smear may live on if it is not vehemently corrected.
The trajectory of this smear is a case study of how conservative misinformation is often injected into the political bloodstream. It starts with a seed of truth then metastasizes into a grotesque lie.
In Trump’s nomination acceptance speech, he said:
I would like to thank the evangelical and religious community because I’ll tell you what, the support they have given me … has had such a big reason for me being here tonight … They have so much to contribute to our politics, yet our laws prevent you from speaking your minds from your own pulpits. An amendment, pushed by Lyndon Johnson, many years ago, threatens religious institutions with a loss of their tax-exempt status if they openly advocate their political views. Their voice has been taken away. I am going to work very hard to repeal that language and protect free speech for all Americans.
Politifact assessed the claim and deemed it true:
The restriction was championed by LBJ in 1954 when Johnson was a U.S. senator running for re-election. A conservative nonprofit group that wanted to limit the treaty-making ability of the president produced material that called for electing his primary opponent, millionaire rancher-oilman Dudley Dougherty, and defeating Johnson. There was no church involved.
Johnson, then Democratic minority leader, responded by introducing an amendment to Section 501(c)(3) of the federal tax code dealing with tax-exempt charitable organizations, including groups organized and operated exclusively for religious, charitable, scientific, literacy and educational purposes, or to prevent cruelty to children or animals. It said, in effect, that if you want to be absolved from paying taxes, you couldn’t be involved in partisan politics.
There was no record of any debate around the amendment.
“The logical argument favoring such an amendment is that those corporations qualifying for the section 501(c)(3) tax subsidy should not be permitted to directly or indirectly use that subsidy to support candidates for office,” said Michael Hone in [a] Case Western [Reserve Law Review] article.
However it was likely, he said, that “Johnson was motivated by a desire to exact revenge on the foundation he believed supported his opponent and to prevent it and other nonprofit corporations from acting similarly in the future.”
So there is some truth here. Johnson was behind the 501(c)(3) restriction on partisan political activity, and it is plausible he was motivated by political revenge. But his animus was not directed at churches.
Also note that Trump’s preceding sentence — “our laws prevent you from speaking your minds from your own pulpits” — is not backed up the facts. Clergy can express any political view from the pulpit short of partisan endorsements. Moreover, clergy can make endorsements and otherwise engage in partisan activity away from the pulpit, just as any other citizen can. And many do.
After the convention, on August 11th, Trump addressed the “American Renewal Project” gathering of evangelical pastors. He went beyond his convention remarks to excoriate Johnson for deliberately trying to silence churches:
It was Lyndon Johnson in the 1970s [sic] and they say he was having a problem with either one or more churches. And they were really going after him, and he wanted to silence the church … It was Lyndon Johnson wanting to silence people that didn’t feel so good about him.
It was in particular one church, they say, in Houston, right. Does anybody know that church? It’s one church in Houston. So we’ll all figure it out. But maybe it was many churches. But he wanted to silence them.
And he was powerful, and he got it approved, and he basically silenced the pastors and the ministers and the rabbis and the priests, and people of religion … And for some reason, the churches, the pastors, the evangelicals, they didn’t do anything about it …
…You’ve been silenced like a child. You’ve been silenced … You’re power has been totally taken away. They were so afraid to even mention the word “endorsement,” as opposed to saying you like somebody, you should be able to support that person and stand on a street corner and say “Trump is the best” … or whoever you want … but you can’t do that now.
This is just a flat lie. Johnson was not responding to criticism from “one church in Houston” or “one or more churches.” He was not trying to “silence the church,” nor did he, because contrary to Trump’s other false statement, clergy can “stand on the street corner” and endorse candidates as individuals. They just can’t do it on behalf of a church that is being subsidized by taxpayers. (And a church that was willing to give up its nonprofit status and pay taxes could endorse candidates.)
After this speech, Trump published an oped with Utah’s Deseret News hoping to win over the state’s Mormon community which has been skeptical of him. Trump wrote:
As a leader in the Senate facing re-election in 1954, Lyndon Johnson succeeded in passing into law an amendment to threaten pastors with the loss of their church’s tax exempt status if they opposed or supported a candidate for election or re-election from the pulpit.
This language is closer to his acceptance speech wording, but it is still designed to leave the false impression that Johnson was narrowly, and viciously, targeting churches as opposed to non-profits generally.
Because that language is technically true, he won’t get busted by the professional fact checkers. His brazen lies were not in a published piece or an event televised in prime-time, but in the quieter corner of a hotel ballroom, delivered to an audience that will readily spread the lie — for years after the Trump campaign is a pile of ashes — so it can become blindly accepted as fact.