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Cokie Roberts Answers Your Questions About Church And State


Let's begin this next story with a basic fact about the United States.


RONALD REAGAN: We establish no religion in this country. We command no worship. We mandate no belief, nor will we ever. Church and state are and must remain separate.

INSKEEP: President Ronald Reagan in 1984 was just paraphrasing the Constitution, which prohibits the establishment of a state religion. But what counts as a state religion? Plenty of room to argue and people have recently. A federal appeals court heard arguments just this week about President Trump's proposed travel ban and whether it's designed to discriminate against Muslims.

Last week, the president signed what he called a religious freedom executive order involving, among other things, rules regulating a church's tax exempt status. And that is where we begin a discussion in which we Ask Cokie, who regularly answers our questions about how Washington works. Hi, Cokie Roberts.


INSKEEP: So here's our first question. It involves church and state.

LORI HIGGINS: This is Lori Higgins. I'm from South Carolina. Why are churches and other religious organizations not taxed when they are trying to influence politics and elections?


ROBERTS: Well, let's break that down. They're not taxed because the theory is that the power to tax is the power to destroy. But in order to hold onto their tax exempt status, they have to abide by certain rules. And that's where the second part of the question comes in. They cannot endorse political candidates or raise money for political candidates. That's as a result of the so-called Johnson Amendment in 1954.

Then-Senator Lyndon Johnson was mad that a conservative group was endorsing his opponent, so he got that amendment saying that you couldn't have tax exempt status if you endorsed a candidate. And President Trump vowed to overturn that in that religious freedom order, but he couldn't do that 'cause it's a law.

INSKEEP: That executive order sets up our next question here from a listener.

TONY GUTIERRES: Hi, Cokie. I'm Tony Gutierres. I'm from Lakewood, Calif., and this is my question. Are there any past presidents or well-known politicians that have attempted to meddle with the separation of church and state?

INSKEEP: OK. Has that separation always been clear?

ROBERTS: No. And from the middle of the 19th century on, for several decades there was an amendment regularly introduced in Congress to amend the preamble to the Constitution to recognize the Lord Jesus Christ as the ruler of all nations. And prominent politicians did support it. But even though the First Amendment prohibits the establishment of religion, and the Constitution prohibits any religious test to hold office, those only applied to the federal government, Steve, until the 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868.

So States did have religious tests. And there is a movement now for a Christian nation saying that that's what the founders had in mind. Now, the Constitution makes it clear that's not the case, as does a 1797 treaty with Tripoli that...


ROBERTS: ...Was - yes - negotiated in the Washington administration, ratified under John Adams, that says the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion and has no enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen.

INSKEEP: Don't mess with Cokie Roberts. She will pull a 1797 treaty out of her hat on you.

ROBERTS: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: We have one more question from the audience here.

MIKE: Hi. This is Mike from Wisconsin. We have our elected officials often talking about their faith, praying or inviting guest clergy to address Congress or the White House. And I was wondering to what extent is any of this legal if we were to strictly follow the Constitution?


ROBERTS: Well, certainly talking about their faith is legal, but in theory the chaplains, prayers, et cetera might be considered unconstitutional. But in practice, the courts have over and over again, Steve, allowed for such things as under God in the Pledge of Allegiance and in God we trust on the currency, congressional chaplains paid by the public and prayers at the beginning of congressional sessions. The courts have said all those things are in the tradition of the country.

And it's true, prayers were said by a chaplain as far back as the Continental Congress. But when Benjamin Franklin, of all people, proposed bringing in a chaplain to the Constitutional Convention, his colleagues told him they couldn't afford a chaplain. But maybe they were still feeling stung by the chaplain from the Continental Congress, Jacob Duche, who turned out to be an enemy agent and eventually was convicted of high treason in Pennsylvania.

INSKEEP: Cokie, thanks very much as always. That's commentator Cokie Roberts. And you can Ask Cokie your questions about how politics and the government work by emailing us at or tweeting us with the hashtag #AskCokie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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