COVID-19 Relief, Church Bailouts, and Cronyism under Trump

The Small Business Administration (SBA) and the US Treasury have released data confirming that millions of dollars in COVID-19 relief funds have been channeled to President Donald Trump’s family members, campaign donors, and political allies, including churches affiliated with his administration. The Trump presidency has once again proved that it is more devoted to practicing Christian nationalism, corporatism, and cronyism than it is to helping Americans struggling to survive the pandemic.

The Payroll Protection Program (PPP) commenced on April 3 with the goal of providing financial relief to individuals, small businesses, and nonprofit organizations impacted by the coronavirus pandemic by granting forgivable government-funded (read: taxpayer) loans to applicants that qualify. The program is part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, and is headed by the SBA. In an unconstitutional maneuver, the SBA used its interpretive powers to include churches and houses of worship on the list of groups eligible for relief funds.

As I reported here last month, the decision to grant religious nonprofits with federal taxpayer dollars amounts to a bailout of churches and other houses of worship unlike anything ever seen in US history.

“The government is calling these ‘forgivable loans’ but that’s just semantics,” says Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association. He says that

Government is giving billions of dollars directly to churches and other religious institutions in violation of the First Amendment prohibition against establishing religion. These taxpayer funds will be used to pay clergy to preach and proselytize. While this step has already happened, and for an extreme circumstance, government needs to now redouble its efforts to avoid future unconstitutional religious entanglements.

For months the administration has been dragging its feet in releasing specifics to the public regarding the disbursement of relief funds, dismissing the concept of “transparency” and responding with what essentially amounts to “Don’t worry about it. Just trust us.” Facing increasing pressure, the SBA and the US Treasury finally yielded, or at least granted a minor concession, by releasing data concerning loan recipients, accounting for “nearly 75 percent of the loan dollars approved.”

“We are striking the appropriate balance of providing public transparency, while protecting the payroll and personal income information of small businesses, sole proprietors, and independent contractors,” said Treasure Secretary Steven Mnuchin in a press statement.

The figures disclosed by the agencies are categorized into five loan ranges: $150,000-35,000, $350,000-1 million, $1-2 million, $2-5 million and $5-10 million. Applicants for loans under $150,000 aren’t listed. Based on the available data, over 12,400 churches in the US acquired billions of dollars.

As religious organizations are not required to provide financial information to the Internal Revenue Service, it’s difficult for taxpayers to find out how much of their money is being spent, where it is being spent, and if these organizations are even using the funds for their intended purpose.

A White House official told Reuters, “This program was about supporting jobs of all backgrounds and political affiliations. We didn’t discriminate based on one ideology or another.”

“Clearly this administration doesn’t understand that the very fact that these forgivable loans are being issued to religious entities, regardless of denomination, flies in the face of the millions of Americans who identify as nontheist and don’t want to see their taxpayer dollars being used to fund any religious activities period,” says Casey Brinck, director of policy and government affairs at the Secular Coalition for America. “Which is exactly what this program does. It is a direct violation of the Establishment Clause, and needs to be addressed.”

On June 16, American Atheists (AA) announced they had launched an investigation into the Trump administration’s “secretive church bailouts,” filing a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the SBA inquiring where and how the funds from the roughly $700 billion package were distributed. So far the group has “identified a minimum of between $3.5 and $7 billion in forgivable loans of $150,000 or more that have gone to specific houses of worship.”

Furthermore, AA estimates another $4-8 billion has gone to private schools, “most of which are religious,” noting that within a two-month period the Trump administration has given churches and religious schools more than twice the amount allotted for the annual budget of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation also launched an investigation, filing two FOIA requests in June, seeking data specific to churches and Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Board. The data released is “as bad or worse than we thought,” says FFRF’s strategic response director,  Andrew Seidel, in terms of the number of churches that received loans, the amounts given to them, and “the corruption in who got some of the biggest loans, those in Trump’s inner circle.”

Trump-linked churches and organizations associated with members of his Evangelical Advisory Board have received at least $17.3 million in loans to date. FFRF reports that many of them have received $2-5 million, including: Jack Graham (Prestonwood Christian Academy); David Jeremiah (Shadow Mountain Community Church); Greg Laurie (Harvest Christian Fellowship), and Tom Mullins (Christ Fellowship Church). Another example is the City of Destiny church in Florida, whose pastor is Paula White, a special advisor to the Faith and Opportunity Initiative at the Office of Public Liaison (also known as “Trump’s personal pastor”). White’s church received at least $150,000.

The First Baptist Church of Dallas received $2-5 million in relief funds, and its senior pastor, Robert Jeffress, is a staunch Trump supporter. The Texas megachurch hosted the “Celebrate Freedom Rally” on June 28 featuring prominent officials from the Trump administration and the state of Texas, a congregation Seidel describes as “a toxic mix of conservative Christianity and representatives of the US government there in their official capacity.”

“Vice President Mike Pence was at his church just a couple days before this news broke,” says Seidel, “along with US Senator John Cornyn, Governor Greg Abbott, the Attorney General of Texas Ken Paxton in what can only be described as a Christian nationalist worship service. Dr. Ben Carson, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, was there as well.”

Incidentally, this gathering, where neither the speakers or the choir singers or many of the congregants wore masks, helped cause the spread of COVID-19 among a handful of participants who tested positive for the virus shortly afterward. Despite this being the type of situation medical experts strongly advise against in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the Trump people showed the same level of seriousness as they have since beginning: zero.

Upon the release of the available data, reviews conducted by multiple media outlets and watchdog organizations further inflame suspicions surrounding the staggering sums awarded to houses of worship aligned with Trump, and rightfully so. The money being picked out of taxpayers’ pockets is not only being dropped into church coffers. It’s also going to Trump’s wealthy friends involved in other ventures.

An Associated Press analysis reports that over 100 companies run by donors to Trump’s 2015 presidential campaign committees, the Republican National Committee, and the super PAC “America First Action” have received nearly $273 million in loans and were among the first to have their applications granted. Strictly from an investor’s standpoint, that’s a profitable return for their collective donations totaling over $11 million.

If that weren’t troubling enough, ProPublica reports that Trump’s family and his close associates also reaped the benefits, revealing their businesses “stand to receive as much as $21 million in government loans.” For Trump, the businessman with numerous bankruptcies to his name (a name that has been plastered all over those bankrupt businesses), government payoffs for him and his family is just business as usual.

“The fact that many of these loans, which reach into the millions of dollars, are being issued to religious organizations and groups that are closely associated with the president is no surprise at all, and was expected before the data was even released,” says Brinck. “It seems the taxpayers are once again funding a Trump payoff.”

The government bailout of churches, particularly with those orbiting around the Trump presidency, represents something more sinister than mere political corruption. This complete disregard for the Constitution is another warning sign of the kind of government Trump and his cohorts have set out to create, one that replaces the US government with a Christian nationalist state dominated by big business at the expense of its citizens, where civil rights and liberties are crucified on a golden cross.

“It’s a vocal minority of Christian nationalists who are trying to drag this country down a dark hole,” says Seidel. “America, right now, is in a serious battle. Christian Nationalism is an existential threat to the republic, and we’ve got to fight back against it.”