The collision of religion and politics always makes for a good story. Last year the IRS opened an investigation into All Saints Church, an Episcopal congregation in Pasadena, for featuring a liberal political sermon two days before the 2004 election. Bradley Whitford, former Quaker, outspoken liberal and erstwhile star of The West Wing, is a member of the church and wrote up his thoughts about the action a few months ago.
First Amendment freedoms of religion and speech buck up against the U.S. tax code, which prevents nonprofit entities from participating in partisan political activities. However liberal the sensibilities of All Saints, the offensive sermon by former rector George Regas didn’t explictily come down in favor of a particular candidate, according to the Los Angeles Times:
In his sermon, Regas, who from the pulpit opposed both the Vietnam War and 1991′s Gulf War, imagined Jesus participating in a political debate with then-candidates George W. Bush and John Kerry. Regas said that “good people of profound faith” could vote for either man, and did not tell parishioners whom to support.
The idea of the Feds investigating churches makes many queasy, but in Ohio, some pastors are actually siccing the IRS on churches across the political aisle. From the Washington Post comes a report that another IRS complaint has been filed against two churches with ties to Secretary of State Ken Blackwell:
In a challenge to the ethics of conservative Ohio religious leaders and the fairness of the Internal Revenue Service, a group of 56 clergy members contends that two churches have gone too far in supporting a Republican candidate for governor.
Two complaints filed with the tax agency say that the large Columbus area churches, active in President Bush’s narrow Ohio win in 2004, violated their tax-exempt status by pushing the candidacy of J. Kenneth Blackwell, who is the secretary of state and the favored candidate of Ohio’s religious right.
I could not be more personally opposed to the blending of politics and religion. I’m an old-school Luther’s Two Kingdoms kind of person. With that blinding bias out of the way, I have to admit I was surprised by the lack of information in Peter Slevin’s report here. He mentions that 56 Ohio clergy signed the petition but fails to characterize the group as a whole. He mentions that one pastor is with the United Church of Christ — my mom’s former denomination. The UCC is neither apolitical nor leaning conservative. The other cleric mentioned is a Jewish rabbi who describes himself as centrist. Which may or may not be true — self-identification isn’t always the most reliable. Except when I tell you that I am gorgeous, funny and wise beyond my years.
Anyway, the article could have served the reader more by explaining a bit about the motivations of the clergy who are going after these conservative churches. I could be wrong, but I don’t anticipate this same group of clergy monitoring the activity of Detroit churches this fall — or taking notes for the IRS next time they attend the liberal political services at Riverside Church in New York City. In that sense, this could be a case of religious political activity on one side of the aisle being fought by religious political activity on the other.
The questions surrounding political activity and the pulpit are serious — on both sides of the aisle. And I’m not just saying that because I oppose them both. Reporters would do well to illuminate the deeper issues (mostly in American Protestantism) that result in religiously fueled political activity on liberal and conservative issues.