02 February 2017
New Proof: Trump is not a Know-Nothing after all
The President attended the National Prayer Breakfast this morning and made the usual spectacle of himself. Among his remarks was the renewal, with escalated language, of a promise made last summer during the presidential campaign to "destroy" the Johnson Amendment. That law is named after Lyndon B. Johnson, then a Senator from Texas, who allegedly sought to undercut his local rivals by stripping churches of their tax-exempt status should their pastors endorse political candidates from the pulpit. Whatever Johnson's motives, his legislation seems like an appropriate enforcement of the separation of church and state, allowing no pretense that the god clerics serve favors one candidate or one party over another. Donald Trump doesn't like it, however. He wants Congress to repeal the Johnson Amendment in order to "allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution." One suspects that he would only make that recommendation having faith that the clergy thus unleashed will speak in his or the Republican party's favor. Trump is often portrayed as a "nativist" in the tradition of the Know-Nothing (aka American) party of the 1850s. The Know-Nothings were Protestant nationalists who feared that Roman Catholicism was incompatible with the country's young traditions of religious liberty and independent thought. One of the main reasons why they sought to regulate if not limit Catholic immigration -- among their proposals was a 21-year naturalization period permitting proper Americanization -- was their belief that Catholic citizens would be told how to vote by their priests, from the pulpit. That prospect apparently troubles neither Trump nor today's heirs of the Protestant nationalists, even as they double down for an apparently existential struggle with people who want clerics to tell everyone what to do. For many Americans, I suppose, it really comes down to which clerics get to give the orders.