Pod people: Concerning the IRS and the God squads

It’s a basic fact of life in American politics that nothing fires up the non-profit sector on the political right like the election of a strong president whose voter base is on the religious, cultural and political left.

Thus, it’s no surprise that the election of President Barack Obama, an articulate believer from the heart of liberal mainline Protestantism, created a boom in activism on the religious, cultural and political right. That’s the way the world works.

Of course, the folks that got most of the mainstream media ink, after Obama rose to power, were the Tea Party activists. The journalistic template was established early on that we were talking about the Libertarian barbarian hordes marching into the public square to sack civilization (but, hey, at least they aren’t the religious right folks).

Thus, most of our recent media firestorm about the public confession that the IRS focused extra scrutiny on White House enemies has focused on — what are those magic words again — non-profit applications by groups that had “Tea Party” or “patriot” in their names, or were dedicated to scary activities such as distributing educational materials about the U.S. Constitution.

However, there has been some mainstream coverage of the fact that the IRS also targeted some conservative religious groups that were dedicated to activism on key moral issues dear to the heart of White House folks — such as abortion, health-care reform and same-sex marriage. If you want to create a few (repeat, a few) headlines, then you go after the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, right to life networks and similar groups.

I’ve been writing about the IRS affairs the past two weeks for the Scripps Howard News Service and, no surprise, the subject continues to come up here at GetReligion. Thus, Todd Wilken and I dug into the subject in the latest GetReligion “Crossroads” podcast.

Did you actually hear about the question that the IRS asked when considering one right-to-life group’s request for non-profit status? Here’s how one of my columns opened:

IRS Commissioner Steven Miller was already having a rough day at the House Ways and Means Committee when one particularly hot question shoved him into the lower depths of a church-state Inferno.

The question concerned a letter sent by IRS officials in Cincinnati to the Coalition for Life of Iowa, linked to its application for tax-exempt status.

“Please explain how all of your activities, including the prayer meetings held outside of Planned Parenthood, are considered educational,” said the letter, which was released by the Thomas More Society, which often defends traditional religious groups. “Organizations exempt under 501(c)(3) may present opinions with scientific or medical facts. Please explain in detail the activities at these prayer meetings. Also, please provide the percentage of time your organizations spends on prayer groups as compared with the other activities of the organization.”

Welcome back to the religious liberty wars of 2013, in a scene captured by the omnipresent eye of C-SPAN.

Now, the key to the podcast discussion was this: If this whole IRS thing is going to have legs, what is the next legitimate angle for journalists to investigate?

By all means, please listen to the whole thing. But here’s a taste of the discussion, which takes us back to the start of this post.

If conservative non-profits have bloomed in the Obama years, it would be logical to think — remember that law of Beltway biology — that liberal groups grew like crazy during the long, dark reign of President George W. Bush.

So what would the key topics for activism have been during those years? Obviously, we are talking about religious and non-religious groups linked to opposition to the war in Iraq, the expansion of gay rights, public education linked to global warming, liberalizing immigration laws, etc., etc.

So here are my journalistic questions: How did the IRS handle these kinds of applications in the Bush years? Were there any unusual stalls in the approval process? Were there any well-established liberal groups that, all of a sudden, found themselves being audited? How did the Bush years contrast with that appears to have happened in 2009-2010?

Also, I think it’s crucial for journalists to remember another key fact of life about this topic. Religious groups have a right to speak out on public issues that are linked to their doctrines and traditions, but they are not supposed to get partisan and mention the names of candidates.

Obviously, there has always been a lot of wink-wink activity that fit under that broad First Amendment umbrella.

The Billy Graham organization drew fierce criticism this time for taking strong stands against gay marriage and in favor of Israel — stances that were easy to see as criticisms of Obama and, thus, of support for his opponent. However, as I wrote in one Scripps Howard column, this church-state puzzle has been around for decades and, thus, it’s hard to slap simplistic political labels on these kinds of statements by religious groups:

At the heart of these fights are questions often raised about a variety of groups on the left and the right. Was it partisan politics when African-American churches worked to promote economic justice, during campaigns when those efforts helped President Barack Obama? What about liberal religious groups that stressed voting green on environmental issues, during campaigns when those efforts often led to support for Democrats?

In recent years, religious conservatives have been accused of turning projects linked to their teachings on abortion and marriage into vaguely partisan efforts to oppose Obama, while indirectly supporting his opponents.

What goes around, comes around.

Enjoy the podcast.

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.


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