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The State and the Church

Links have been added since this article’s original posting.

In June of 2004 the Internal Revenue Service issued a letter (and simultaneously, a press release) to churches and other tax-exempt organizations reminding them of the ties that bound them to their own tax-exempt status. The year after all was an election year, and the tax code prohibits churches who wish to remain tax-exempt from officially endorsing any candidate or otherwise joining election campaigns. Ostensibly, the letter was sent to remind churches how obliged they were to abide by the code. How delicate is the quadrille that the State and the Church turn in these United States! At arm’s length hold yourselves: do not look the other in the eye, lest one of you winks; do not blush, lest you betray desire for the other’s affection; above all, do not misstep, lest you have to pause the Ralph Nader, after all, would be preferable to Jesus, and he hasn’t even been able to get a ticket to watch a debate these past eight years, much less to stand on stage. dance.

Now it’s November 2005, and that letter has been revealed to be more than just a dance invitation. Over the AP wires today, thanks both to savvy PR work (including a number of interviews, such as with NPR) and to reporting by the Los Angeles Times, comes news that the IRS has warned the All Saints Episcopal Church (Pasadena, CA) that it may have violated its exemption during the campaign. It appears the Reverend George Regas, speaking on the eve of the election, went too far in proposing a debate between George W. Bush, John F. Kerry, and Jesus H. Christ. (Never mind that neither the Democratic nor Republican National Committees would ever agree to such a debate: Ralph Nader, after all, would be preferable to Jesus, and he hasn’t even been able to get a ticket to watch a debate these past eight years, much less to stand on stage. It’s even yet a bigger question whether Jesus would agree. “Lord,” his disciples might ask, “Why do they say you will not debate the Republican and the Democrat?” And Jesus would reply, “The debates in the Kingdom of God is not like the debates of this world. In my Father’s Kingdom there are no two-minute answers to profound social problems. The debates of my Father are like a small book in a large library. Shelved with books of its kind, it is understood as much by what is next to it as by what is inside it. Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable? The debates of my father are like a single word in a sentence.”) The IRS’s warning obviously has not gone unnoticed—no less than Ted Haggard (What white teeth he has!), who speaks to the President every day, has come out in support of All Saints.

In question is whether the Reverend’s sermon crosses the rules laid out in Publication 1828, Tax Guide for Churches and Religious Organizations (PDF) and, specifically, in this section:

Under the Internal Revenue Code, all IRC section 501( c )(3) organizations, including churches and religious organizations, are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made by or on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity. Violation of this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise tax.

Certain activities or expenditures may not be prohibited depending on the facts and circumstances. For example, certain voter education activities (including the presentation of public forums and the publication of voter education guides) conducted in a non-partisan manner do not constitute prohibited political campaign activity. In addition, other activities intended to encourage people to participate in the electoral process, such as voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives, would not constitute prohibited political campaign activity if conducted in a non-partisan manner. On the other hand, 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. (7)

Most relevant are the final caveats. Did Rev. Regas favor, oppose, or “have the effect of” favoring or opposing either George Bush or John Kerry by his sermon? The Reverend says of course not, but the IRS says his criticism of tax cuts (as reported at the time in the Times) claims otherwise, all printed material and church policies notwithstanding. The IRS has given the church an out, but it’s of the “Say Uncle!” variety: the IRS will go away if the church will just admit it did wrong.

I am sure there are many opiners already jumping to defend one party or the other in this case. I admit that my own sympathies lie with All Saints and the Reverend, and I suspect that most people will sympathize similarly—after all, nobody likes to side with the IRS. But I’m struck that what’s in question in the mess isn’t really the First Amendment. What’s in question instead is the amount of tolerance the State gives to the Church to exist at all.

The State said to the Church, “You have betrayed our covenant. You made as if to interfere with my goings and comings, and I must make an example of you to show all the others. Have I not given you much? Why must you disrespect me as you have?”

The church replied, “You have given me much, but I swear I serve another master, and you knew it when we agreed to our pact. My master is greater than you. Don’t you know what he will do if you destroy me? My master will destroy you.”

“Your master had that power years ago, I admit,” said the State, “But I see little of your master in you. Since you contracted with me, you’ve grown fat on my scraps: you will remain mine because you are useful to me. I have known you long enough to know that you will not refuse.” With that, the State dragged the Church onto the scaffold. The scaffold was bare—it was humiliation, not death, the State sought—and the Church felt exposed standing there, in front of all the Nonprofits, Corporations, and Individuals. The State began to speak, and it made certain to meet the eyes of all those attending: “Do nothing to challenge my authority! I walk in this world! I set your laws! I protect you! I have given each of you a place. So long as you do not stray, this will not happen to you.” The State then ripped the Church’s clothes from her back. Naked, surprised, she stood for a long while. She grew cold. She did not cry, but neither did she struggle. And all those who watched shook their heads in disappointment.



this is one of my favorite pieces you’ve ever written. and that ted DOES have white teeth.


There was photo of Jessica Simpson in People recently, just when The Dukes of Hazzard was released, in which her teeth were so white I’m sure bugs fluttered around them at night. The effect was grotesque. I don’t think Haggard’s teeth are quite that bad. Is it just me, or doesn’t anyone else feel even a little suspicious when the teeth you see don’t have even a little bit of coffee stain?

The Binghampton case is more cut-and-dried than this—in fact, there are hypothetical cases in Pub.1828 that resemble almost to the point that church’s actions. So far as I can tell, while the Rev. Regas came down pretty hard on Administration policies, he never endorsed his opponent directly. What’s most clear to me is that it’s candidate endorsements (and whatever the opposite of endorsements is), not policy endorsements (and their opposite) that the regulations are largely after. This, anyway, is the irony that J.A. points out in his post on the subject.

I looked, but couldn’t find the Times article from 2004. Apparently they don’t keep public their morgue for as much as a year. If anyone has access to a Lexis account and a few minutes to search & e-mail… well, I’d love you to death.