Tuesday, August 29, 2006
This Wall Street Journal piece reports that "[o]ver the past two years scores of organizations have faced scrutiny [from the IRS] for allegedly mixing their political convictions with their religious ones. And this summer the IRS expanded a program it first launched in 2004 to take direct aim at political advocacy inside houses of worship." It continues:
The new crackdown, which the IRS calls the Political Activity Compliance Initiative, has so far put some 15,000 nonprofits--mostly churches--on notice that preaching politics puts them at risk of audits, fines or, in some cases, the loss of tax-exempt status. The IRS has also announced it will no longer wait for complaints to come in, but will instead take action "to prevent violations." It will be reviewing the content of sermons, it says, as well as the financial books of religious organizations. The free exercise of religion could now come with a hefty bill.
I wrote a few months ago, in USA Today, that:
Religious leaders and activists have always spoken provocatively — and even prophetically — about faith's implications for citizens, candidates, policies and elections. Not surprisingly, these reminders often prompt criticism and resistance in the pews, the news media and the public square. But we should neither demand nor expect our faith commitments or religious ministers to tell us only what we want to hear, or always to assure us that we and the status quo are doing just fine. What's more, it should not be the place of government officials or IRS agents to impose and enforce a line between pastors' stirring sermons and partisan stump speeches. . . .
It is the regulation of the churches' expression, and not their expression itself, that should raise constitutional red flags. Religious institutions are not above the law, but a government that respects the separation of church and state should be extremely wary of telling churches and religious believers whether they are being appropriately "religious" or excessively "political" or partisan. Churches and congregants, not bureaucrats and courts, must define the perimeter of religion's challenges. It should not be for the state to label as electioneering, endorsement, or lobbying what a religious community considers evangelism, worship or witness.
Of course, there are good reasons — religious reasons — for clergy to be cautious and prudent when addressing campaigns, issues and candidates.
Reasonable people with shared religious commitments still can disagree about many, even most, policy and political matters. It compromises religion to not only confine its messages to the Sabbath but also to pretend that it speaks clearly to every policy question. A hasty endorsement, or a clumsy or uncharitable political charge, has no place in a house of worship or during a time of prayer — not because religion does not speak to politics, but because it is about more, and is more important, than politics.
See also this paper I wrote a while back, "A Quiet Faith? Taxes, Politics, and the Privatization of Religion":
The government exempts religious associations from taxation and, in return, restricts their putatively “political” expression and activities. This exemption-and-restriction scheme invites government to interpret and categorize the means by which religious communities live out their vocations and engage the world. But government is neither well suited nor to be trusted with this kind of line-drawing. What’s more, this invitation is dangerous to authentically religious consciousness and associations. When government communicates and enforces its own view of the nature of religion, i.e., that it is a “private” matterand of its proper place, i.e., in the “private” sphere, not “in politics” it tempts believers and faith communities also to embrace this view. The result is a privatized faith, re-shaped to suit the vision and needs of government, and a public square evacuated of religious associations capable of mediating between persons and the state and challenging prophetically the government’s claims and conduct.