President Trump last week promised to repeal a law that prohibits tax-exempt religious organizations from endorsing political candidates. As he put it at the National Prayer Breakfast in his characteristically bombastic style, he would “totally destroy” the ban, pushed through Congress in 1954 by Sen. Lyndon Johnson.
The proposal, predictably, was met with opposition by many observers, who argued that such a move would threaten the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state.
But religious leaders — and everyone — should be able to speak freely without fearing that their words will cost them money. Somehow the republic managed to survive until 1954 without those free-speech rights being abridged. There is no reason to think that restoring those rights will be our downfall today.
One of the most eloquent conservative voices against President Trump belongs to Tom Nichols, a professor at the Naval War College and at Harvard Extension School. Last May he wrote an epic tweetstorm arguing that conservatives should vote for Hillary Clinton, whom he detested, because Trump was “too mentally unstable” to serve as commander-in-chief.
Given Nichols’ anti-Trump credentials, I thought it was interesting to read an op-ed he wrote for The Washington Post over the weekend in which he argued that the media have been overreacting to some of the actions the Trump administration has taken. Among other things, he wrote:
There is plenty of fuel for the president’s critics in these actions, yet Trump’s opponents — especially in the media — seem determined to overreact on even ordinary matters. This is both unwise and damaging to our political culture. America needs an adversarial press and a sturdy system of checks and balances. Unmodulated shock and outrage, however, not only burn precious credibility among the president’s opponents, but eventually will exhaust the public and increase the already staggering amount of cynicism paralyzing our national political life.
I think this is important guidance. There are multiple reasons to think that Trump represents a unique threat to democracy. But journalists can’t run around with their hair on fire for the next four years. The best way to cover Trump is with calm, fact-based reporting — not with hyperbole that does not hold up to scrutiny.
President Trump at the National Prayer Breakfast earlier today promised to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits nonprofit organizations from engaging in certain types of political speech lest they lose their tax exemptions. The amendment was pushed through Congress in 1954 by Senate majority leader Lyndon Johnson, who was under attack by several nonprofit groups back in Texas.
Religious organizations have been complaining about the restriction for years. In 2009 I wrote a commentary in The Guardian agreeing with them, though my main concern was that the amendment prevented nonprofit news organizations from endorsing political candidates. Given that nonprofit news is becoming an increasingly important part of the media landscape, it seemed (and seems) unwise to ban such projects from engaging in what traditionally has been a vital service to their communities. I argued:
Would this mean greater influence for the likes of religious hatemongers such as James Dobson and Tony Perkins? Yes. But the whole idea behind free speech is it’s for everyone, not just those with whom you agree.
I also wrote critically about the Johnson Amendment in my 2013 book “The Wired City,” much of which was an examination of the New Haven Independent, a nonprofit news site.
I have not changed my mind. And thus I applaud our orange leader for standing up for free speech. Leaders of nonprofit organizations, including religious groups, should not have to fear that if they speak out they’ll literally have to pay a penalty.
If you’ve been looking for decency amid the indecent acts of President Trump, Copley Square on Sunday afternoon was an ideal place to find it. Thousands upon thousands of people gathered to protest the president’s policies aimed at keeping immigrants and refugees out of the country. And notwithstanding the occasional sign with an F-bomb or with a swastika imposed over Trump’s face, they were just so nice.
Among the decent people I met was Oke Metitin, a young Nigerian-American woman who lives in Boston. She was holding a large sign proclaiming Emma Lazarus’s poem that’s inscribed on the Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor …”) followed by “No Ban. No Wall.” I asked her why she had come to Copley Square. “My parents were immigrants, so I felt obligated to protest,” she said. “Hopefully President Trump will get the message that this isn’t constitutional.”
There is so much to think about following President Trump’s illegal, un-American ban on immigrants from several predominantly Muslim countries. I’ll be attending the Copley Square rally later today that’s being organized by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and will write about it for WGBH News.
For now, let me comment on a small piece of this. As I’m sure you know, Trump issued his executive order on Holocaust Remembrance Day, thus turning the nation’s back on a new generation of refugees at the same time that he was commemorating one of history’s most terrible events. And his statement regarding the Holocaust made no mention of the Jews because, you know, others suffered too.
In my first book, “Little People,” I explored a longstanding belief among people in the dwarfism community that Hitler rounded up all the dwarfs and had them killed. What I found actually reinforced the uniquely Jewish character of the Holocaust. In fact, dwarfs were largely left alone by the Nazis. Some may have been caught up in Hitler’s campaign to eradicate people with severe disabilities, but most people with dwarfism are healthy and ambulatory, and thus did not run afoul of the Nazi killing machine.
Members of the Ovitz family — dwarf entertainers from Hungary — even recalled being helped onto trains by German soldiers. But then it was discovered that they were Jews. They were shipped off to Auschwitz, where they became the subjects of Josef Mengele’s unimaginably cruel experiments. Incredibly, all of them survived.
On Tuesday, The New York Times published a story headlined “Why Women Quit Working: It’s Not for the Reasons Men Do.” It is illustrated with a photo of a woman named Krystin Stevenson, who is black and has dropped out of the work force. And we learn:
At 31 with two children, she doesn’t turn her nose up at jobs that are considered women’s work. She hasn’t been swallowed by the wildfire of opioid addiction, dogged by a brush with the law or sidelined with a disability after years of heaving loads in manufacturing or construction.
Yes, if we’re reporting on the life of an African-American, we’d better establish right up front that she’s not a drug addict or a criminal. Because. Well, you know.
As it turned out, Stevenson stopped working because her mother got sick and was no longer able to help with the kids. Stevenson’s situation, Times reporter Patricia Cohen tells us, is emblematic of a broader trend.
But wow, that set-up. How did it ever get past an editor?
In assessing the dawn of the Trump era, there are plots. There are subplots. And there are sub-subplots. Among the more intriguing of those sub-subplots is the fate of the conservative commentariat under a Republican president who is not conservative and whom most right-leaning pundits fulminated against during the past year and a half.
President Trump has the Fox News Channel, of course. I caught just enough Friday night to see Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson smirking and backslapping over their guy’s rise to power. Some post-Roger Ailes chaos aside, the enduring popularity of Fox may prove to be more than enough to offset the influence of conservatives who are appalled at the prospect of a president who exudes demagoguery as well as several varieties of nationalism, including economic and white.
Other than Fox, though, Trump has received little support from conservatives.