LYNCHBURG - Republicans convening in Cleveland next week for their national convention have added a plank to their convention platform that at least one prominent religious leader says will energize the nation’s evangelical and Christian conservative constituencies.
The platform - which must be formally approved at the convention - will call for the repeal of the so-called “Johnson Amendment," a 1954 law proposed by then-U.S. Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson, D-Texas. It changed the U.S. tax code in order to bar tax-exempt organizations like churches and nonprofits from backing or opposing political candidates.
Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr. said the position was included in the platform at the urging of GOP presidential candidate Donald J. Trump, who called Falwell early Wednesday morning to inform him of the news.
“This is going to create a revolution among Christian leaders, nonprofit universities, and nonprofits in general,” Falwell, who endorsed Trump in January, said in an interview with the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
The influential evangelical leader - who took over Liberty following the 2007 death of his father, university founder, Jerry Falwell Sr. - said repeal of the law, which would require congressional action, would be “the biggest thing for evangelical Christians to come along in decades,” asserting they have been “silenced by arcane rules” from exercising “political free speech.”
Falwell confirmed that he will attend the convention that begins Monday and that he has been invited to speak, though the specific speaking role has not been determined.
Falwell said the most important impact of the election will likely be the ability of the next president to appoint Supreme Court justices who could rule on many of the social issues aligned with Christian conservative beliefs.
Swing-state Virginia is considered a must-win state for Republicans this November. With Democrats holding substantial numerical advantages in Northern Virginia, tapping support among the commonwealth’s religious conservatives and rural voters will be critical to GOP success. President Barack Obama, a Democrat, carried the state in 2008 and 2012.
“I think it’s an issue of turnout,” he said. “The message should be if you don’t turn out in November, it’s a de facto vote for Hillary Clinton and everything she stands for,” he continued, rattling off the Democrat’s support for abortion, gun restrictions, “open borders, bigger government and more regulations.”
Evangelicals, said Falwell, did not turn out for establishment GOP presidential candidates like Mitt Romney, the party's 2012 nominee, and John McCain, the party's 2008 nominee. But he said evangelicals could support Trump because he is “not the status quo, not a career politician.” Falwell said Trump is not someone who tries to "bamboozle" conservatives, but “somebody who has lived in the real world,” and had success outside of Washington.
Falwell was an early supporter and is perhaps the most prominent Virginian to endorse Trump. He gave the billionaire business mogul a glowing introduction when the candidate spoke at Liberty convocation on Jan. 18. Falwell noted at the time that the school does not endorse candidates.
He formally endorsed Trump a week later and campaigned for him in Iowa ahead of the state caucuses.
The Liberty president also was in New York last month to introduce Trump to a gathering of roughly 1,000 evangelicals. He said he has had an informal relationship with the campaign, consulting with staff and family members and occasionally Trump himself.
The last few days, however, have brought a flurry of activity over the Johnson amendment plank and as Trump has begun narrowing his selection process for vice president.
Falwell, who has spoken with Trump and others on the Johnson amendment and vice presidential choice, said he believes Trump will “go with somebody who has the same qualities that got him where he is - a little outside the establishment.”
He expects Trump's running mate to be not the classic moderate Republican establishment candidate that the party has nominated in the past, but a more outspoken conservative.
While Falwell said Trump has aligned himself with evangelicals on important issues, his support for Trump is more rooted in the entrepreneurial than the spiritual.
He sees parallels in Trump’s business success to the way in which his grandfather ran a family business in Campbell County in the 1920s and how his father developed Liberty from a small Christian school 45 years ago that has grown into the largest Christian university in the world, with $1.8 billion in assets.
“The entrepreneurial spirit is what drew me to Trump,” he said, noting that the candidate has also “adopted the right positions on all the issues that matter to evangelicals.”
Unlike previous elections, he said, the lines between choices of Democrat and Republican candidates - Trump and Clinton - "couldn't be bolder."