God And Caesar: IRS Targets Liberal Church

Random Lengths News | November 28, 2005
Two days before the 2004 election, the Reverend Dr. George F. Regas, Rector Emeritus of All Saints Episcopal Church, in Pasadena, gave a sermon in which he said, “I don’t intend to tell you how to vote,” “Both Senator Kerry and President Bush are devout Christians,” and “Good people of profound faith will be for either George Bush or John Kerry for reasons deeply rooted in their faith”—all within the first 200 words.

The sermon was titled, “If Jesus Debated Senator Kerry And President Bush,” and Rev. Regas also told the congregation in those first 200 words, that Jesus—not Kerry, or Bush—would be the winner of the debate.

And yet, the IRS is proceeding with an investigation that could potentially revoke the church’s tax-exempt status, based on the charge of “campaign intervention,” arguing that Regas implicitly endorsed Kerry despite explicitly saying otherwise.

“We’re very clear as our attorneys explain, that we have not violated the statues,” explained Reverend Susan Russell, All Saints’ Senior Associate for Parish Life, which includes public communication. Russell previously served 5 years in San Pedro.

“We don’t see ourselves as fighting the IRS. We are in agreement with the statues. We happen to believe that partisan politics do not belong in the pulpit,” she explained.

Indeed, All Saints vigorously criticized the Clinton Administration for its welfare reform policies in the late 1990s.

"One of the strongest sermons I've ever given was against President Clinton's fraying of the social safety net," All Saints Rector J. Edwin Bacon recalled.

“There are far more egregious things going on out there,” said writer/researcher Frederick Clarkson, author of Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy And Democracy. “I don’t think that the church is in any danger. If it was, they’d have to close down thousands of churches across the United States.”

But some churches—even conservative ones—are worried precisely about that, according to Rev. Bacon.

“We have conservative people who are calling us, and saying, pastor we are with you. If they’re coming for you today, they will come for us tomorrow,” Bacon said in an interview on KPFK on November 17.

Conservatives are split, however. Some are pushing to change the law, to allow churches to make partisan endorsements, explained Don Parker, of the Interfaith Alliance, a group of 70 faith traditions—including atheists and agnostics—which stresses “the values of community, civility, and cooperation...[seeking] to move beyond the traditional ‘right/left’ arguments and find common grounds in the nation's search for the common good.”

The bill, H.R. 235 “would specifically allow houses of worship to endorse candidates,” Parker said. “Very few on the progressive side are wanting to endorse candidates. Many on the conservative side are wanting to.,” he explained. “We think they’re now going after more progressive churches to build up support for HR 235. We see that as a very cynical approach.”

Some churches aren’t even waiting for HR 235.

As an example of the “far more egregious things” he referred to, Clarkson said, “What’s going on with the Ohio Patriot Pastors is the not just the poster child but the poster village of pushing the envelope on church tax exemption. It’s an outrage. The whole thing is being organized to promote the gubernatorial candidacy of Kenneth Blackwell. It’s as blatant a violation of the tax system of anything I’ve ever seen. It involves many churches, not just one.” The goal is involve 2000 pastors.

The New York Times reported last March that, while the Patriot Pastors project describes itself as “nonpartisan and nonprofit” and won’t endorse candidate, “Mr. Blackwell will be invited to speak to pastoral meetings and to a statewide Ohio for Jesus rally next spring, along with other prominent Christian conservatives like the Rev. Franklin Graham, Dr. James Dobson and Charles Colson,” according to its own written plan.

However, IRS regulations state that candidates can only speak if other candidates are invited and permitted to speak. Furthermore the Patriot Pastors plan centers on voter registration and “voter education” guides. But the IRS says, “voter education or registration activities with evidence of bias that: (a) would favor one candidate over another; (b) oppose a candidate in some manner; or (c) have the effect of favoring a candidate or group of candidates, will constitute prohibited participation or intervention,” which could cost churches their tax-exempt status. The project appears to be an organized conspiracy to massively violate the law.

Boundary violations going the other way have been celebrated, under the rubric of “faith-based initiatives,” which Bush had to institute by executive order. Even the Republican-controlled Congress wouldn’t pass them.

“My view of the faith-based initiatives is they are transparently an update of the spoils system. This is about channeling massive resources to theocratic constituency groups,” Clarkson said.

Prior to hurricane Katrina there were even press reports about how Republicans were making inroads into the Black community via faith-based funds flowing through hand-picked Black churches.

“Part of the long-term [GOP] strategy going back decades has been to try to divide the African American Community,” Clarkson explained. “They’ve tried all kinds of things, and now they’re trying it with money.”

Beyond the sheer crassness, Clarkson raised the question of what America stands for.

“The Founders would just be appalled. One of the big issues of the 18th Century in Virginia was a tax to fund the Anglican clergy in Virginia, that was opposed by the governor, James Madison.” This battle lead to the exclusion of religious tests in the Constitution, as well as the First Amendment. Over time, the federal example trickled down to the states, which one-by-one abolished their state churches.

“The idea of using government funds from all of the people, and using it to fund that activities of a preferred religion filled the Founders with outrage. That kind of activity was everything they opposed,” Clarkson stressed.

In contrast, Bacon vigorously supports the IRS code, while disputing the claim that All Saints has violated it. He staunchly defends the church’s calling to political activity, but sees partisanship as dangerous to any church’s true calling.

“If churches were encouraged through legislation to take a stand on partisan issues, that would, I think, impede the liberty that churches have to speak truth to power,” Bacon said.

“There would be such a seductive encouragement be to aligned with someone that you would form alliances and allegiances which I think get in the way of the prophetic freedom that every faith community should exercise and enjoy.”

Prophetic freedom is a core value, Bacon explained.

“The Hebrew prophets more than three thousand years ago were intent on passionately speaking truth to power on behalf of the marginalized, or what we later came to call the least of these. Jesus, we understand in Christianity , was one who embraced the prophetic tradition.”

“The Episcopal church nationally has a along history of being in the forefront of social change,” explained Rev. Russell. “The Episcopal Church believes that we need to be not just hearers, but doers of the Word. It takes us into the soup kitchens, and sometimes into the political regions.”

When anti-apartheid leader and Nobel Peace Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu preached at All Saints on November 6, it was simply the continuation of a long tradition.

“We have members who marched in Selma and with the Freedom Riders. We were in the forefront of moving forward in ordination of women,” Rev. Russell explained. “And embracing gay and lesbian people into the life of the church shows a continuity of inclusion that’s been a part of my life in the heart of the Church.

Rev. Russell was Associate Rector at St. Peters Episcopal Church in San Pedro from 1998 to 2002 before moving to All Saints, and saw the same values embodied there.

“In St Peters in San Pedro we have a diverse multicultural congregation that has tried to reach into all segments of the population there... with ministry to children and outreach with the Seaman’s Institute, and a long history of being aware and active with social needs,” she reflected.

“It was a huge privilege to start my ministry in San Pedro, because both Sand Pedro and the congregation of St. Peters is a perfect microcosm of who we are as the best of the country,” Russell said. “San Pedro have an unusual mix of ethnicities, and a very, very diverse mix of political opinions from the radial left to the conservative right; coexisting in a tolerant diversity is a model for what I hope we will be as a country.” Hence the sharp line between partisan and political involvement.

“I think San Pedro has something to teach the rest of the country on how neighbors with different views can coexist out on that little peninsula.”

Frederick Clarkson has just launched a group blog "Talk To Action," dedicated to reporting on, learning about, and analyzing and discussing the religious right– and what to do about it, at talk2action.org, with an impressive line-up of leading authors, researchers and activists in the field.

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