November 22, 2005

The IRS Goes After All Saints Church

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 10:26 pm

I’ve been remiss in not blogging about the IRS/All Saints’ controversy, especially since All Saints Church is in my backyard. The LA Times broke the story of the IRS investigation into a decidedly anti-war sermon delivered at All Saints by the Rev. George Regas a couple days before the 2004 elections. The LA Times followed up the next day about conservatives joining All Saints in objecting to the IRS investigation. (A pdf with the sermon in question is here.) Regas ultimately gave his side of the story in an opinion piece in the LA Times. Just this past Sunday, the Pasadena Star-News had an article with the latest at All Saints.

The Christian blogosphere, left, right and center, has been abuzz about it. Dwight, Camassia, and Hugo all see it as political intimidation against a liberal church (as do I). Hugo speaks with authority on the subject, since he heard the original sermon and criticized it at the time. Mark D. Roberts, pastor at Irvine Presbyterian, has a 12-post series on the topic criticizing the All Saints sermon but with a certain ambivalence towards the IRS.

It seems clear to me that the IRS action is a political response to a sermon very critical of George Bush right before the election. And let’s be honest — the sermon pretends to provide equal-opportunity criticism of both Kerry and Bush, but it contains a one-sided condemnation of Bush’s war in Iraq, and by implication, Bush himself. There is plenty here for Bush administration hacks (as opposed to career IRS employees) to get upset about.

But did it cross the line from prophetic speech into political campaigning? If churches can’t speak about the moral issues of the day, and war is certainly one of the most pressing, then they will be salt that has lost its taste. Of course any church could decide to operate without a tax exemption, but could your church survive a 30%-40% budget cut next year?

The reason the NAE has joined the National Council of Churches in opposing this crack-down by the IRS is that evangelical churches could be the next victims under a liberal administration. Countless conservative preachers have spoken out against abortion and gay rights. Is there any question which political party these sermons benefit? Like Regas, they aren’t endorsing a candidate explicitly, but elevating these moral concerns above all others leads inexorably to Republican candidates.

While progressive and conservative Christians are making common cause against the IRS, some conservative legislators are taking it a step further. The Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act has been introduced to allow non-profits to make political endorsements. The website promoting the act makes a statement that is clearly false:

All religions, all faiths support the Freedom of Speech Restoration Act. Why wouldn’t they?

Mark Roberts makes a good argument why they shouldn’t.

But if preachers could openly support candidates, and if churches remained tax exempt institutions, I fear we’d see a widespread co-opting of the church in America. Suppose an election is coming up. And suppose you strongly support one particular candidate. Rather than forming some sort of PAC that receives taxable contributions, wouldn’t you be inclined to found a “church”? Or, if you didn’t start a new church, wouldn’t you look for a church that shared your political views, and then use that church to advance your agenda? The contributions to your cause would be tax free, unlike contributions to other political organizations. What a mess this would be! We’d have, in effect, thousands of “churches” that were in reality little more than political action committees, not to mention real churches that could get way off track. This would be terrible, I think, both for the church and for our country.

Sounds like a specific case of the more general argument for separation of church and state.

Dwight at Versus Populum has a link to this petition calling for the IRS to return to the settled interpretation of the law regarding church involvement in politics and opposing the Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act. I often wonder what impact these online petitions have, but as Dwight says, it can’t hurt!

6 Comments

  1. The LA Times broke the story on the Monday before the election. What I thought was more interesting is that just one column over from the All Saints story was a second story telling how the Roman Catholic and some Evangelical churches in California had inserted into their bulletins that Sunday a list of the propositions to be voted on and what their churches positions were on the propositions.

    And there are “W’s” appearances at Bob Jones University and the subsequent visit to the White House by Bob Jones and other Evangelicals proclaiming to “W” that they put him in the White House and therefore he “owed” them. Or what about the Bishop who told his congregation that anyone who voted for or supported Kerry would be denied the sacraments.

    I guess it’s OK for churches to support the conservative agenda but watch out if you take a different stand. Can a new round of inquisitions be far behind?

    Comment by Tony — November 23, 2005 @ 11:55 am

  2. Democrats and Republicans today are like the Arians and Athanasians of old. There are true Christians, according to the government, and there are pretenders. Once more it seems to be the government’s job to separate the wheat from the tares. Heaven forbid we should be required (or even allowed) to decide for ourselves where to worship and whom to vote for!

    Comment by wildwest — November 23, 2005 @ 12:13 pm

  3. I am all for any church preaching on issues of morality, regardless of what those issues are. I do take issue to any church thinking that who I vote for is one of those issues. Any church that gets that political is not for me. I would respectfully explain to the pastor my feelings on the issue and then take myself, my children, and my money somewhere else.

    Comment by Angel — November 23, 2005 @ 4:23 pm

  4. The IRS should be abolished and replaced with a modified flat tax (not truly flat in that taxable income does not start until $40,000 of earnings to protect against inequity). That would solve these kinds of issues…not to mention make it a lot easier to file returns.

    Comment by The Chairman — November 23, 2005 @ 7:05 pm

  5. I’m with you Angel!

    Comment by wildwest — November 24, 2005 @ 9:11 am

  6. The Bishop who informed his congregation they would be denied the ‘sacrements’ was absolutely wrong to do so. In most, if not all, denominations which call communion a ‘sacrement’ hold that it is required for salvation (absolutely not true as this implies salvation by works, not by grace through faith). Thus he was saying he had the power to deny salvation to anyone who didn’t vote the way he said.

    I do not agree with the ‘politics’ of the Presbyterian denomination as they have long since departed from the Truth layed out in the Bible. However, to permit them to be attacked by means of legal extortion as the IRS is attempting to do will open the door for later government to do the same to any denomination.

    Imagine a US government controlled in both houses by liberal democrates backed by liberal courts and a liberal president. A terrifying thought I know… yet, such a government, prompted by the gay/lesbian lobbyists could make it possible to open the door to persecution of any pastor who proclaimed the Truth that homosexuality is a sin, abhorent in the eyes of God.

    As for churches getting ‘political’, you could not be further from the truth. It is only the morally correct, conservative right which has prevented this country from plumetting into a sespool of evil propogated by liberal politics. It is the apathy of many of that morally correct right which has permitted the progress of our social decline to reach the pitiful depth to which we have sunk.

    Comment by Curtis — September 27, 2006 @ 8:05 am

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