Faith broadcaster: Christian free speech under assault
Hopes tax-exempt groups can be political
The chief officer of the National Religious Broadcasters says he is heartened by prominent conservatives filling key roles in the new administration, but has lingering concerns about President Trump’s support for legislation dealing with religious freedom and protections.
“I am encouraged and frustrated,” said Jerry A. Johnson, president and CEO of the National Religious Broadcasters, which comprises more than 1,000 media and communications organizations broadcasting to nearly 60 million listeners.
In an exclusive interview with editors and reporters at The Washington Times, Mr. Johnson addressed concerns of conservative Christians about the role the federal government plays in protecting their religious freedoms. He blamed partisanship in Washington, not the president, as the cause for delays in legislative action sought by Christians.
“I said it’s D.C. It’s divided government, it’s legislative schedule. It’s not Donald Trump,” said Mr. Johnson, a pastor, former radio broadcaster and college dean.
A top concern among Christians is Mr.
Trump’s call to repeal the Johnson Amendment. Proposed by Sen. Lyndon Johnson in 1954, the amendment prevents tax-exempt nonprofit groups from participating in political activities, including promoting or opposing candidates.
Last month Mr. Trump signed the “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty” executive order, which directs the Treasury Department — and, by extension, the IRS — not to impose tax penalties or withdraw tax-exempt status from qualified organizations that speak out “about moral or political issues from a religious perspective.”
The move is largely seen as support for repeal of the Johnson Amendment, but the religious broadcasters leader said it was a missed opportunity for Mr. Trump to nullify the amendment outright.
However, Mr. Johnson expressed confidence that the Free Speech and Fairness Act will be approved by Congress. Introduced in January by Rep. Walter B. Jones, North Carolina Republican, the legislation seeks to amend tax codes so that tax-exempt organizations can retain their status and make statements about political campaigns.
“I think it will pass,” he said. “I spoke to Speaker [Paul D.] Ryan about it two weeks ago. I believe it’s going to pass. I believe it will pass. The version is not that it’s an absolute repeal, it’s essentially going to be churches may speak out on politics.”
Mr. Johnson said he believes the First Amendment free speech rights of Christians — especially on social media and internet platforms — are under attack in the U.S., and he wants his organization to be the advocacy group that stands up for them.
“Every Christian, really, at this point, is a communicator, using media some way to communicate, and we want to be for them what the NRA is for the Second Amendment. We want the NRB to be for the First Amendment,” said the Baptist pastor, whose Southern drawl lends a measured and deliberate quality to his speech. “We want to make sure that they are able to have a level space on the playing field and a place in the public square.”
He said he’s buoyed by Mr. Trump’s overtures to Christians, which is in opposition to a “mood of censorship, a mood of discrimination, a mood of treating people of faith different” under eight years of the Obama administration, particularly among topics concerning homosexuality and Islam.
“The two points of censorship we see [are] probably the Islam issue … and the sexuality issue,” he said. “We see in our country — as well in Europe — Christians in the workplace, in the media, the military and elsewhere. There’s a great pressure now coming to give in on the same-sex marriage issue, or transsexual issues. So we see these right now as the wedge issues on freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom of press.”
‘Personnel is policy’
Religious institutions and individuals who speak out against Islam and homosexuality are most threatened by negative repercussions from government agencies like the IRS, the Department of Education and the Federal Communications Commission, Mr. Johnson said.
In 2013 the IRS admitted to targeting conservative groups for tax scrutiny, burying them under lengthy applications and using intrusive audits to intimidate them. The head of the IRS at the time, Steven T. Miller, resigned over the controversy, and the agency continues to be embroiled in a number of class-action lawsuits filed by the targeted groups.
Mr. Johnson said NRB members The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Evangelical Christian radio host James Dobson charge they also were singled out and bullied by the tax-collecting agency.
The National Religious Broadcasters also has concerns about threats to the accreditation of Christian schools, and that their private status would not continue to protect them from directing the values of their students.
Mr. Johnson explained his concerns by drawing a parallel between Title IX funding for gender equality in athletics and how similar mechanisms could be applied to protect the rights of homosexuals and transsexuals, who are viewed as contrary to Christian values.
“If you make the transsexual issue part of that package, or the same-sex … doctrine part of that package, quickly you would have a lever there with [the Council for Higher Education] and the regionals — like Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and so forth — to make that part of accreditation,” he said. “It would just be a noose around the neck of Christian schools.”
As an organization of broadcasters, the NRB is concerned with how FCC guidelines can be used to censor or edit religious content seen as antithetical to federal guidelines, particularly on the topics of homosexuality and Islam.
“In the name of public standards, the FCC has the authority to edit content and to say, ‘This is acceptable and this is verboten,’” Mr. Johnson said. “We know the ‘new sexuality’ was federal policy [under the Obama administration]. We know that, and so it seemed to be not too far of a leap for the FCC to say, ‘This is indecent, this is hate speech, this is not in the community’s interest.’”
But the NRB is buoyed by what it views as the most conservative presidential Cabinet. “Personnel is policy,” Mr. Johnson said, praising the appointments of Education Secretary Betsy Devos and FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.
“There’s certainly a mood that the president gives to things, and the mood of Obama was in the direction of censorship. And the mood of President Trump — with the executive order he did last month — is to say, we’re not going to persecute Christians, discriminate against Christians and treat them as second-class citizens,” Mr. Johnson said.
“So he pretty much said, when it comes to the Johnson Amendment, ‘I’m instructing the IRS to not go after folks for violating the Johnson Amendment.’ We want to see that overturned in the Congress.”