President Donald Trump will take his first overseas trip as America’s chief executive officer later this month. The trip will include stops in Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the Vatican, where Trump will meet with Pope Francis, a senior administration official said yesterday.
The Vatican issued its own announcement Thursday, stating, “His Holiness Pope Francis will receive the Hon. Donald J. Trump, President of the United States of America, on Wednesday, 24 May 2017, at 8:30 a.m. in the Apostolic Palace.”
The meeting comes despite a sharp contretemps between the two men during the presidential election. When asked about Trump’s campaign promise to build a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico, Francis stated, “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the Gospel.” Trump shot back that Pope Francis was a “pawn” of the Mexican government and “a very political person.” “No leader, especially a religious leader, should have the right to question another man’s religion or faith,” Trump said at a campaign rally.
Trump also met privately with Roman Catholic cardinals in the White House, after a Rose Garden ceremony earlier Thursday in which he signed an executive order directing the IRS to take a relaxed approached toward enforcement of the Johnson Amendment, a law that forbids churches and other tax exempt corporations from endorsing political candidates. The IRS already has a laissez-faire attitude toward enforcement of the Johnson Amendment—as far as we are aware, no church has ever lost its tax-exempt status for having endorsed a presidential candidate. But President Trump believes the law has an in terrorem or chilling effect on free speech:
"Under my administration,” said President Trump at the Rose Garden ceremony, “free speech does not end at the steps of a cathedral or synagogue, we are giving our churches their voices back, with this order, we will also make clear that the federal government will never penalize any person for their protected religious beliefs.”
Repeal of the Johnson Amendment would require congressional action. We will be watching this development.