From the nation's capital to Arkansas', freedom of speech reaped one victory after another as last week ended and what looked like a new birth of freedom began. The country's president, the irrepressible Donald J. Trump, issued an executive order letting Americans of faith know they need no longer fear being singled out by the Internal Revenue Service for voicing their faith--anywhere.
"Under my administration," the president declared, "free speech does not end at the steps of a cathedral or a synagogue or any other house of worship. We are giving our churches their voices back." People of faith, he added, will no longer be "targeted, bullied or silenced any more."
The news must have been especially welcome to the Rev. Ronnie Floyd of Cross Church here in Arkansas, who knows all too well what it's like being watched by the IRS for daring to talk about politics from the pulpit, at least if those politics are unacceptably right-wing instead of the conventionally left-wing kind that wins the approval of the mainstream media. "It was quite historic and very encouraging," said the Reverend Floyd, "to know that this administration is all in on religious liberty, and we're very grateful for that. People that have been through what we've been through really do appreciate today."
For as of today the old section of the IRS' rules named the Johnson Amendment for Lyndon Johnson no longer applies. That section stated that non-profit organizations--like churches--are "absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of the organization (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office."
In politics, money not only talks but shouts, so the old policy also punished spending as well speaking on behalf of a candidate: "Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity. Violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes." Surely those bureaucrats who drafted this policy must have meant oral instead of verbal, for all their orders must involve verbs. Their language is as execrable as their decrees.
Not until Obamacare came along would American citizens be told they'd be subject to punishment under the murkiest of governmental diktats. Which may be why Alert Reader's favorite part of the now late and unlamented Johnson Amendment may be its mention of statements that "clearly violate" the IRS' rules. for there's nothing clear about them. They could have been drawn up of, by, and for lawyers, not the people who have to deal with them. Such rules are an invitation to selective law enforcement, which sure enough soon ensued under this fuzzy language.
The essential misunderstanding underlying all such policies is the assumption that the separation of church and state is the same as the separation of government and religion. It isn't, for religious and political values have been inextricably interwoven in this republic even before it was a republic but only an English colony. Brother Floyd sounded positively jubilant at this welcome turn of events, and had good reason to be. "Putting a gag order on the pulpits of America is ridiculous," he noted. "We need to give people the right to practice what they believe in their houses of worship and where they go and where they live. That's what freedom of religion is."
To quote Mat Staver, an attorney who helped the Reverend Floyd and his congregants in their legal fight to vindicate their freedom of religion, there's no good reason for the IRS to be looking over a preacher's shoulder while he writes sermons or prays for his congregation. "I don't think it's any government's business," he says, "for someone to micro-manage what a [preacher] says in the pulpit." Amen and Selah.
Meanwhile, freedom of speech scored another victory not in a state or national capital but on campus at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. A professor was suspended from certain administrative duties after a scheduled speaker was un-scheduled. Because her Skype presentation might offend the readily offendable. As the great jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. commented in another century: "If there is any thought that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought, not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate."
While other American universities have been allowing mobs to silence unpopular speakers, UA-F is proving an exception to that sad trend. It's just sent a message to others who might want to bend to the mob.
In an email last month, various members of the faculty pressed the university's King Fahd Center for Middle East Studies to "publicly withdraw its sponsorship" from a symposium that had been scheduled to discuss women's rights in Muslim countries. It's a question as old as Plato: Who will guard the guardians of the Republic if those guardians won't? To all of which questions, these censors' attitude might be summed up best by a line from the immortal Ring Lardner: Shut up, they explain.
But some of us have no intention of letting ourselves be gagged by the kind of petty tyrants who, in place of supporting public discourse, would gag it. Do stay tuned. And stay on guard. For the price of liberty is still eternal vigilance.
Editorial on 05/10/2017
Print Headline: Loud and clear