It would appear that our current president has it in for former president Lyndon Johnson. In a speech to religious leaders he promised to “destroy” the Johnson Amendment, the law restricting tax-exempt entities such as churches and nonprofits from directly or indirectly participating in political campaigns. Specifically, ministers are restricted from endorsing or opposing candidates from the pulpit, a strict and bright line of demarkation between church and state. For those of you who may be thinking “that’s not so bad”, remember, The Church of Scientology is a tax-exempt religion, and as of 2013, so is the atheist group Freedom from Religion Foundation. Though Johnson’s reasons for introducing the legislation may not have been so pure, the resulting law accurately enforces the Founding Fathers desire that America would never directly or indirectly allow government to impose a sanctioned religion on a free people.
Trump takes aim at another Johnson era program in the recent release of his budget, proposing to eliminate the National Endowment for The Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts. President Johnson’s aim with these programs was to serve “not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community.” In exchange for defunding these and other programs, the president proposes a large increase in military spending.
The arts system in the U.S. has no single benefactor. We have no government Ministry of Culture dictating to us. A variety of government subsidies make up about 7% of the total investment in not-for-profit arts groups. The NEA is the largest single funding mechanism in the country for the arts, and the majority of direct public funding comes from a combination of federal, state, regional and local agencies. Candidates for funds are subjected to rigorous peer review, ensuring that awards are based on merit, and not on policy aims or political favoritism. In 2016, the NEA appropriation was $148 million. 80% went toward grants.
The NEH is a separate program that provides funds for scholarly research and public programs in history, philosophy, literature, religion, ethics, and jurisprudence. The NEH appropriation in 2016 was approximately $148 million. Included in the program’s funding is the Digital Public Library of America. I, and possibly millions of others, are direct recipients of this effort to bring scholarly works to the people. In researching historical information for my next novel, The Heritage, I have been able to access information from many sources, including historical documents and information from the Library of Virginia and the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities websites, which derive their funding from the NEH. I am sure that without even knowing it, you have utilized information that was made available to you because of the NEH.
The funding for these two essential government programs represents a minute portion of the $4 trillion budget proposal, of which the military will get a $54 billion increase. Of course, in addition to the cuts to arts programs – public broadcasting, museum and library science services, the National Archives, and many other non-military programs – would all lose funding. Overall, they represent .02% of the total budget, literally a drop in the bucket.
If you are a cynic, you might look at this lopsided budget proposal as a way for Trump and his advisors to silence his critics, many of whom are on the opposite end of his political spectrum and are recipients of this funding. His determination may have galvanized when the cast of the musical Hamilton stood on stage at the end of their performance with Vice President Pence in the audience and used their “pulpit” to implore the president to reasonableness in his attitude toward immigrants. The president, who is given to vindictive retribution and threats of “defunding” in his tweets, took this personally, and tweeted his displeasure the same day.
Or he may be thinking that with the increase in wealth he will be granting the already disproportionately wealthy with the tax breaks forthcoming in the tax overhaul, the funding that he cuts for the arts and humanities will easily be made up with donations from wealthy benefactors. Perhaps more tax incentives are coming for charitable giving by the wealthy, big corporations and repatriated profits.
It is impossible to know what the final outcome is that Trump sees in his mind, because he is still as yet unable to articulate and communicate his vision in a way that we can all understand. Just as with the “repeal and replace” AHCA, we are left to muddle through and take on blind faith the “next two steps” of the process that will somehow equate to affordable access to healthcare once the first step is in the bag.
What I do know is this: We cannot just be a nation of warriors – of guns and weapons. I am not opposed to increased funding for the military. The bill for two unfunded wars in the middle east waged by the previous Republican administration have come due, and we must give veterans and soldiers every means possible to fight and win the wars that will come, and after they fight, to heal, but the current budget proposal comes at too high a cost, defunding essential programs vital to this nation’s soul, including arts programs that help soldiers heal. The arts and humanities connect us all. Creativity in the arts – paint, fiber, sculpture, dance, drama, and literature, are an outlet for our pain and suffering, and a means to celebrate with our minds and bodies the God of our creation. And the humanities – literature, culture, and history – teach our children to read more than just 140 characters in a twitter feed – but rather to think critically and read deeply – to empathize and sympathize – to bestow compassion and channel anger, to love God and be faithful to his Word – to understand where we have come from and how we can get to where we want to go. These two programs are vital to our individual and collective sanity, to our national life, and to our ability to create, innovate, and succeed in our business, military and personal life. As a country, we should be eager to celebrate – and SUPPORT – the human experience in all its creative forms for we are not just one thing – we are worshippers, we are soldiers, we are workers, we are parents, we are teachers, we are business innovators – we are all of these things – and creativity is what drives us. President Johnson understood this. We all share the spark of life as God’s creation, and creativity is innate in all of us. It is the image of God that we are made from.