In May, when James E. “Trey” Trainor III was confirmed by 49 Republicans in the Senate to become a member of the Federal Election Commission, the big story was that the FEC finally had a quorum, enough members to legally get to work on election-related issues — including the regulation and enforcement of campaign finance laws. There were two Democratic members and (now) two Republican members on the commission. The two other vacancies were never filled.
Trainor was already known to be a partisan hack. He was a Republican lawyer from Texas who wanted less oversight of money in politics.
But in a recent interview with the right-wing Catholic outlet Church Militant, Trainor confirms every concern Democrats had, rejecting the separation of church and state and claiming, falsely, that pastors can endorse political candidates from the pulpit without jeopardizing their churches’ tax exempt statuses.
Jack Jenkins of Religion News Service explains:
“I don’t think a bishop has the right to tell a priest that they can’t come out and speak,”; the FEC chairman said.
“Especially with this executive order that President Trump signed, the churches can absolutely engage in that activity,” said Trainor, a lawyer who previously represented the Texas Republican Party and two presidential campaigns.
Trump’s executive order did not repeal the Johnson Amendment no matter how many lies he’s told to the contrary. Trump may have impeded the amendment’s enforcement, which wasn’t all that enforced to begin with, but it’s still technically in effect.
If a pastor tells his congregation how to vote, then the church must lose its tax exemption.
Remember: Churches, like other non-profits, are already allowed to discuss political issues without a problem. Pastors can condemn marriage equality, endorse the treatment of women as second-class citizens, and tell everyone science is fake. But as a condition of their tax-exempt status, they’re not allowed to directly tell people how to vote (even if they can strongly imply it all they want).
I know this and I’m not a lawyer.
Trainor is a lawyer and doesn’t know it.
His Democratic colleague on the FEC recognizes that, too.
“My colleague is not correct,” [Commissioner Ellen L.] Weintraub, a Democrat who has chaired the commission three times since joining it in 2002, told RNS in a statement.
“Though the president’s executive order directs law enforcement authorities to not enforce the Johnson Amendment, that statute remains the law of the land and cannot be undone with an executive order. Anyone tempted to violate the statute should keep in mind that a future administration could well decide to enforce the law as Congress wrote it,” she said.
Faced with the facts, Trainor admitted to RNS that he was only referring to the selective lack of enforcement of the law — as if that’s something to celebrate — even though his words on the podcast lacked that nuance.
As far as church/state separation goes, Trainor called it a “fallacy”… in the sense that everyone in the public square is “informed” by their beliefs, whatever they are. But that’s not what attorneys who work on church/state separation cases are fighting in practice. The real concern is when politicians try to legislate their beliefs.
Trainor didn’t address that. But he did agree with the idea that the upcoming election represents a “spiritual war.” He also endorsed the idea of a “Christian Nation,” but then backtracked on the idea when confronted directly about what he meant.
It’s all just more proof that Trainor is a Christian extremist who has no business being in a position of power. If a Muslim colleague spoke about politics in a similar way, there would be a national outcry. But because this administration has applauded and promoted such rhetoric from conservatives, it’ll go virtually unnoticed and unchallenged.