All we need is love

progressiaThis, from Tim Townsend at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Go Cardinals!), would have to be my favorite lead in a religion story this weekend:

In the end, the Edwardsville church and its bishop just couldn’t get along.

So after three years of increasingly ugly bickering, members of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church have asked a bishop across the river to take them under his wing. At least for a while, until things cool down — say, three to five years.

The church in Edwardsville says its bishop, Peter H. Beckwith of the Episcopal diocese of Springfield, Ill., a theological conservative, has refused to provide pastoral care. Things came to a head last year when Beckwith refused to confirm a lesbian, and, later, anyone at all at St. Andrew’s. In retaliation, two of the church’s eucharistic ministers — lay people who help the priest during communion — refused to accept the Eucharist from Beckwith.

In response, he stripped all 15 of St. Andrew’s eucharistic ministers of their licenses.

The story is really well-written and chock full of details. He puts the local story in perspective. It turns out that Bishop Beckwith was one of the American bishops who asked the Archbishop of Canterbury for different oversight after the recent election of a female to the post.

I do want to raise one point with the piece. Note how Townsend describes why the bishops asked for new oversight:

They were angry that the American church had elected a progressive leader, Katharine Jefferts Schori of Nevada.

Note how he describes why a plan for alternative oversight was developed:

To appease angry conservative congregations, the church’s House of Bishops developed a plan in 2004 that allowed disgruntled parishes to separate from their bishops and seek leadership elsewhere.

I am not sure if “angry” is the best word to describe the response of traditional Episcopalians to the doctrinal changes their church is undergoing. Not that they’re not angry — but some bishops have a doctrinal problem and are seeking a way to address it. It emphasizes an emotional response at the expense of a global theological rift.

Also note the unanswered quote from St. Andrew’s Rector Virginia Bennett about Ed Salmon of South Carolina, one of the potential alternative bishops they’ve asked for:

“We might not see eye to eye every day, but we need a bishop who would love us, and Ed would.”

Townsend is a great reporter. If a story is significant, he’ll look at it from different angles over days or weeks. I hope that in future coverage, he will let traditionalists respond to the idea that church discipline is not pastoral or loving.

Church discipline is a difficult issue to cover. If he covers it, I think Townsend will find many pastors say that discipline should be motivated by love and concern for an unrepentant sinner or congregation. In other words, pastors are so worried about their parishioners’ salvation that sometimes they take drastic action to bring the unrepentant sinners back to a right understanding.

It would be a shame if that action — apart from the theological difference at play here — were characterized solely as unloving, unpastoral or angry.

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Covering those tricky finances

moneyThe final two articles in the New York Times series on “how American religious organizations benefit from an increasingly accommodating government” deal with money. Lots of money. Reporters are known for being those students who failed miserably at math and thus decided to go into a career that supposedly would keep them far far away from numbers.

Nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to real-life journalism. The best reporting involves the heavy lifting of numbers and statistics. These two articles are no exception. Fortunately for readers, reporter Diana Henriques has a pretty good grasp on the numbers, as well as the complex legal trails involved in several court disputes over tax exemptions.

I would note though that she confused a percentage translation that resulted in a correction to the fourth and final article (Henriques wrote that a pastor who opted out of Social Security would receive a 15.3 percent pay increase. The actual increase is 18.1 percent).

In the third article, focusing largely on tax breaks for religious institutions, Henriques pulls the clever journalistic trick of portraying a situation as much more dire than it really is. In this case, it’s the fact that religious intuitions receive tax exemptions. But only later in the article does she reveal that secular nonprofit groups receive those same exemptions:

Every state affords some type of property-tax exemption to churches, synagogues, mosques and other religious landowners, typically through statutes that also cover charities, libraries, museums, private schools and other secular nonprofit groups. Indeed, when the Supreme Court ruled on the constitutionality of this tax break in 1970 it noted approvingly that the benefits did not fall exclusively on churches.

But those venerable tax statutes did not envision the reality of modern congregations that operate athletic programs in their own gymnasiums or fitness centers, as well as bookstores, music and video production units, coffee shops, counseling services, ice cream parlors, child care programs and multimedia ministries that beam their messages from satellite dishes or television transmission towers.

Since when are large, multifaceted churches a new development? Sure, churches have evolved over the years with changes in technology and society. And conservative evangelical churches have risen to new prominence. But churches have always held a solid position within a community and offered a variety of services, from schools to community centers to medical facilities.

It would be have been helpful if the article mentioned that tax breaks in American society are nothing new or unique to religious organizations. They are bought and sold every summer on K Street. Yes, $500 million in tax breaks for the incomes of the nation’s ministers, rabbis and other clergy sounds like a lot, but it’s only one small hole in the national tax bucket.

Henriques says in both articles that we should be scared about the expanding tax friendliness of religious organizations and tax-free bonds given by local municipalities. From the third article:

Gradually, state bond statutes became less restrictive toward religious institutions and federal and state appeals courts started to permit tax-free financing at unabashedly religious universities — and later, religious high schools — so long as the money was used for firmly secular projects, like dormitories and dining halls. (California courts have held on to the “pervasively sectarian” standard, but three religious schools are currently challenging that approach before the State Supreme Court.)

Then from the fourth article on tax breaks:

The tax break is not available to the staff at secular nonprofit organizations whose scale and charitable aims compare to those of religious ministries like Pastor [Rick] Warren’s church, or to poorly paid inner-city teachers and day care workers who also serve their communities.

The housing deduction is one of several tax breaks that leave extra money in the pockets of clergy members and their religious employers. Ministers of every faith are also exempt from income tax withholding and can opt out of Social Security. And every state but one exempts religious employers from paying state unemployment taxes — reducing the employers’ payroll expenses but also leaving their workers without unemployment benefits if they are laid off.

The contrasting issues in the piece, of churches receiving generous help from government for financing and then accepting generous tax breaks for their status as religious institutions, is compelling. Those stingy religious groups seem to be having it both ways when it comes to the Constitution.

Henriques effectively cherry-picks cases around the country to portray this as The Situation in America. But if she talked to a few people like Saddleback’s Rick Warren, who unfortunately refused to talk for this piece, I wonder if she would have included a more precise understanding of religious leaders’ thoughts on this Constitutional church-state matter.

I ask this because I am curious. Usually the best articles deal strictly with the facts, with little shading from talking heads. But in this case a few thought leaders would have been helpful for perspective.

Are church leaders genuinely trying to have it both ways in an attempt to get their grubby hands on all the dollars they possibly can? I’m sure there are bad apples out there, people who are blatantly attempting to capitalize on the religious exemptions, but those cases should not determine the rule.

It’s also important to remember that religious organizations are anything but monolithic. I grew up in a church that did not believe in going into debt of any kind for anything. The church’s leaders would not have dreamed of working political connections for a tax-free bond.

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Filling that gods-shaped hole

Christus statue temple square salt lake cityAs we slide closer and closer to election day, some political reporters are looking ahead to 2008 and the status of “value voters” and the evangelical vote.

This keeps leading people to Mitt Romney, of course, and the M word.

But reporters are still afraid to talk about the real issues here. They keep pointing at the wrong doctrines. Here’s a Los Angeles Times story from earlier in the week that shows what I mean.

So, reporter Elizabeth Mehren, why are evangelicals so worried about Romney’s faith? Here is a scene on the non-campaign trail in Iowa:

… Romney faces a potential obstacle that has not confronted a presidential hopeful for almost 50 years. As a devout Mormon — and a onetime bishop of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — Romney adheres to a faith that makes many Americans uncomfortable. Not since John F. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, sought the White House in 1960 has the religion of a potential president been an issue. A recent Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll found that most religious barriers to high office had crumbled, but that 35% of Americans would not vote for a Mormon president.

. . . Since he announced in December that he would not seek a second term as governor, Romney has campaigned in key primary states — steadfastly decreeing that his faith was a private matter. He deflects most inquiries by stating that Jesus Christ is his savior. A favorite Romney quip is that in his church, “marriage is between a man and a woman and a woman and a woman.”

This laugh line, and his reluctance to delve deeper into his beliefs, only add to the mystery of a faith that many Americans associate with polygamy — although that practice has long been outlawed by the church — and with customs such as marrying people after they have died and converting the dead.

I have heard lots of traditional Christians discuss this issue and I have never heard anyone discuss polygamy. Maybe it’s the crowd I run with, people who’ve read a lot of religious history, but what I hear people talking about is the very nature of God in Mormon theology.

They are worried about a P word, but it’s not polygamy. It’s polytheism. (Click here for a flashback to my own interviews with top Mormon leaders on this topic.) The P word then leads to the big concept that the press is going to have to face — the E word.

That word is “exaltation,” and its concept that what man now is, the God of this creation once was. Thus, there are many worlds, creations or spheres that have their own gods (and the gods have many wives) who are humans who have evolved to divinity. Click here for a typical evangelical Protestant discussion of this conflict.

That’s going to be a tough one to handle in a press conference when it comes up. Romney needs to open that question up on his own turf, on this own terms and, to use that old Washington phrase, “hang a lantern on his problem.”

Mehren almost gets to this issue, via an itnerview with the Rev. Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals. Sure enough, he uses the word “cult” in a doctrinal sense of the word.

“We evangelicals view Mormons as a Christian cult group. A cult group is a group that claims exclusive revelation. And typically, it’s hard to get out of these cult groups. And so Mormonism qualifies as that.” In addition, Haggard said, evangelicals do not accept Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith as a prophet. “And we do not believe that the Book of Mormon has the same level of authority as the Bible,” he said.

When Romney says that he accepts Jesus Christ as his savior, “we appreciate that,” Haggard said. “But very often when people like Mormons use terms that we also use, there are different meanings in the theology behind those terms.”

And there you have it. Mormons and traditional Christians are often using the same words, with different definitions. And then there is the big divide and that is the word “exaltation.” Mehren’s story is better than most I have seen on this topic so far, but it still has a gods-shaped hole in it.

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At least the Sun is consistent

To my amazement, the Baltimore Sun continues to do something that must be really, really hard — offer virtually faith-free coverage of the Amish school massacre in Nickel Mines, Pa. The Sun did it the other day and now they’ve done it again.

It’s amazing. This new story is about the razing of the blood-stained school. Reporter Jonathan Pitts does note, quoting Bart Township Fire Company spokesman Mike Hart:

A crew of about 40 brought the building down in less than 20 minutes as a small group of Amish looked on. Later, workers with backhoes filled the gaping hole with topsoil.

“It’s not like the Amish to leave a permanent memorial,” Hart said. “They don’t believe in individual attention that way. One day the place will look like a pasture.”

Now, I bet there’s a reason the Amish don’t like to call attention to themselves. I bet there’s a reason they do not create memorials of this kind. I know the Amish are hard to interview, but I bet that someone in Lancaster County can fill in some of the details here. I am almost positive that there is a religious angle to this story. It’s up there. You think?

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Sold on the Spirit

leonardandwifeReaders in Denver should be thankful for Eric Gorski, the wonderful religion reporter at the Denver Post. I’ve read and enjoyed him for years. Gorski never takes the easy road when describing complex religious ideas. Because he takes the time to understand nuance, his stories are much more fleshed out.

His editors gave him a lot of time and space over Columbus Day weekend to cover one local religious leader: Bishop Dennis Leonard of Heritage Christian Center. Since I hail from the Denver area, I’ve known more than a few people who were members of that megachurch.

Bank on God: storing up riches on earth,” the first story in the series, sets the stage for Bishop Leonard’s underlying theology of prosperity. Gorski speaks to theologians at various schools but also a number of current and former members of Heritage. It gives the reader a much more realistic view of how the theology filters down to the practical level. Gorski’s gift is balance — he speaks to members who talk about the benefits of tithing and he speaks to former members who dispute the claim that God is reciprocal.

The gospel of prosperity,” the second story, is a breathtaking expose of all the financial dealings of Bishop Leonard, his family members, and the church itself. I can’t imagine how much time Gorski spent interviewing countless players and establishing the story. Gorski spoke with multiple experts familiar with IRS law and did his best to reveal motivations of conflicting parties. This story exhaustively uncovers complex financial dealings and substantiates allegations well. Here’s the summary at the beginning of the piece:

Project Heritage, a nonprofit founded by the church, was faulted for squeezing too much profit out of a government program to help low-income families buy renovated homes. Leonard’s daughter-in-law and the daughters of the board chairman earned real estate commissions on the home sales, which the government flagged as a conflict of interest.

The lead real estate agent at the time said a Project Heritage executive told her to funnel half her commission income back to the nonprofit and pressure a lender to donate half his profits to a ranch for youths founded by Garret Leonard, the pastor’s younger son. The executive denied the former claim, and Garret Leonard called the latter charge “a lie from hell itself.”

While many of his church members live on the edge financially, Leonard enjoys a luxurious lifestyle, living in a $1.4 million home in the gated golf community of Castle Pines Village, driving luxury vehicles and vacationing at a condo in Mexico. The bishop also flew across the country on a multimillion-dollar church-owned jet, angering some church members, before it was sold.

The church became fertile ground for a sales networking business that involved Michele Leonard, the bishop’s third wife, and his elder son, Mark. They and other Heritage pastors recruited others in the church community to buy and sell wellness products for which they could earn extra income based on the sales of their recruits.

A board of elders that established Bishop Leonard’s salary was restructured, taking that decision away from church members. Leonard now sits on the church’s board of directors, and the church says an outside independent board sets his salary.

The portrait that emerges of Heritage Christian Center is a conflicting one. While preaching a gospel of wealth, Leonard also urges the faithful to give back: The church runs one of the city’s largest food banks, a “breakfast club” that prepares meals for the homeless in shelters and parks, a prison ministry that installed 26 satellite dishes in state prisons and an emergency outreach that clothed Hurricane Katrina evacuees.

Gorski easily could have written a hit piece that focused solely on the allegations of misdeeds. But he works overtime to get all sides to the story and paint the most balanced picture possible. He shows how Leonard, while he might make $750,000 a year or more, pastors a multiracial congregation and how his sermons counsel people. The $8 million jet that flew Leonard around might have been an example of an extravagant expenditure, but Gorski talks to the pilot who says he never saw such a frugal operation in 40 years of aviation.

In the end, that approach might make the piece all the more damning.

Still, he breaks down the problems in a Housing and Urban Development-financed project, including conflicts of interest, overcharging for homes, financial reporting problems, and kickbacks.

Keys To Financial Freedom WebMost reporters would just write a story about financial shenanigans. Gorski does that and more. By establishing a prosperity theology baseline, he more accurately and fairly presents the Leonard picture. He ends with this telling quote about Leonard and his sons from his first wife, Christine Jewett Robie:

“They truly live and believe that if you give you will get back,” said Jewett Robie, who lives in Boulder. “In a way, they’ve proven that. I don’t think everyone knows all of the story, what they go through. They work hours and hours. Church is a business.

“They run it like a business. And it’s been successful.”

The final piece focuses in on Leonard and his appeal. Gorski lets parishioners praise him and former parishioners raise questions about his financial dealings and theological depth.

The series is well worth reading, even this chart showing the differences between the way two churches govern themselves.

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New York Times needed more liberal clergy

clerical attireLegislators must go crazy, whenever they enter the arena of church-state law, trying to write laws that protect the innocent without creating legal sanctuaries in which the demons of fraud and corruption have even more room to dance.

After all, the First Amendment makes it clear that the government is supposed to give religious expression and practice every benefit of almost every doubt.

What do I mean? Let’s say that you have, as Exhibit A, Father Frank of the Roman Catholic Church and your goal is to protect his rights as a clergyman. Don’t focus on issues of taxes and property at the moment. Let’s just say, to consider an issue that has played a major role in church-state law, that you want to protect his right to hear the confessions of undocumented workers without having to worry about government officials bugging him about what he’s hearing.

Now, try to write a law that protects all the rights of Father Frank, yet somehow allows government officials to crack down on the shady activities of our Exhibit B. This is Father Not-So-Frank, who, via a mail-order-bishop, has become a priest in a tiny splinter church that insists it is just as valid as the Vatican. Let’s call it the Eastern Old Catholic Liberal Orthodox Communion of the Utrecht Empire or something like that.

Trust me, these churches are out there.

Our Father Not-So-Frank is a full-time mail man and, next month, he’ll compete his advanced online training and become a bishop. Then he’ll start cashing checks and ordaining priests of his own, at his split-level cathedral and parsonage in suburban Oklahoma City.

Now, how does the U.S. Congress pass a law against what this man is doing without hurting the “real” — sorry for the scare quotes — priest? By the way, while I am at it, do counselors in the Church of Scientology have the same rights? What if they refuse to discuss the dollars and cents of their work?

You probably know where I am going with this. I’m working my way around to Part II of reporter Diana B. Henriques‘ massive In God’s Name investigative series in the New York Times. This is the installment titled “Where Faith Abides, Employees Have Few Rights.”

Here is the big news in this story, the good news and the bad news. The good news is that religious groups are free to pick their own leaders and they have the legal right to ordain, hire and fire people based on whether they believe the doctrines of the particular religious group doing the ordaining, hiring and firing. What’s the bad news? It’s pretty much the same as the good news, because this opens the door for Father Not-So-Frank as well as allowing Father Frank and his superiors to do their thing with as little government interference as possible.

The bottom line: There is no way to force religious groups to be democracies.

The pope does not have to be an equal opportunity employer. Neither do all those independent Baptist churches that dot the street corners in Everytown, Texas. Neither does the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at Harvard University. It is OK if your local Orthodox synagogue refuses to hire a Assemblies of God pastor or, for that matter, a Reform rabbi. The same thing goes for the people who teach in these religious bodies’ schools, answer their telephones and do all kinds of other tasks in these voluntary religious associations.

I am pretty sure that Henriques knows this. It is not as clear that she realizes that it is hard to protect this constitutional right for the angels without making life easier for the people that some of us consider demons. She does know about the laws that are on the books:

The most sweeping of these judicial protections … is called the ministerial exception. Judges have been applying this exception, sometimes called the church autonomy doctrine, to religious employment disputes for more than 100 years. As a rule, state and federal judges will handle any lawsuit that is filed in the right place in an appropriate, timely manner. But judges will almost never agree to hear a controversy that would require them to delve into the doctrines, governance, discipline or hiring preferences of any religious faith. Citing the protections of the First Amendment, they have ruled with great consistency that congregations cannot fully express their faith and exercise their religious freedom unless they are free to select their own spiritual leaders without any interference from government agencies or second-guessing by the courts.

To do otherwise would be an intolerable government intrusion into employment relationships that courts have called “the lifeblood” of religious life and the bedrock of religious liberty, explained Edward R. McNicholas, co-chairman of the national religious institutions practice in the Washington, D.C., office of Sidley Austin, a law firm with some of the country’s largest religious organizations among its clients.

Yes, judges and legislators are not supposed to get entangled in doctrine, which makes it pretty easy for some religious leaders to wave the doctrine flag and do all kinds of mean and even sinful things.

color rainbow12So what can the state do? Long ago, when I was doing my graduate work in church-state studies, I remember something one of my professors said. When push comes to shove and it comes time for the government to try to decide what is good religion and what is fake religion, just about the only things the cops can probe are profit, fraud and threat to life and safety. Other than that, religious groups are pretty much free to do their things.

I could go on and on, but let me make two final points.

Here is another crucial statement in this part of the Times package:

Religious employers have long been shielded from all complaints of religious discrimination by an exemption that was built into the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and expanded in 1972. That historic exemption allows them to give preference in hiring to candidates who share their faith. In recent years, some judges have also refused to interfere when religious groups have dismissed lesbians, unwed mothers and adulterous couples, even if they profess the same faith, because they have violated their employers’ religious codes.

Right. But Henriques really needed to add a few more words to that last sentence. It really should end by saying, “because they have violated the doctrinal and moral covenants that they signed of their own free will on the day they took their jobs.”

In other words, a Wiccan mega-coven — should one ever exist — has a right to dismiss its lesbian priestess if she decides to get married and become a Southern Baptist. A mosque can dismiss the leader of its preschool if he converts to Judaism and starts telling all the children about the glories of Israel. Focus on the Family can dismiss someone who has an affair. Or they can choose not to do so, if the leaders of the ministry believe the man or woman has repented.

That’s called “freedom of association.” It’s a pretty important concept. Someone at the Times needs to look that up.

However, it is clear that Henriques is aware that the same laws that protect conservative groups protect liberal religious groups. She even knows that some of our most important recent laws protecting religious liberty were passed with the help of the Clinton White House and super-broad coalitions of religious leaders that ranged from the Eagle Forum to the ACLU, from the National Council of Churches to the National Association of Evangelicals, from the Southern Baptists to the Episcopalians. On these issues, Pat Robertson was dancing with Bill Clinton (although it isn’t nice to dwell on that image).

So let me end there. What do I think Henriques should have done to improve and balance this story? She needed to talk to more clergy and experts on the religious left.

And almost all the church-state lawyers said: Amen.

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It all about individual sin

sinDavid Kirkpatrick of The New York Times has one of the better articles out there dealing with the religious right’s reaction to the Foley scandal. While Kirkpatrick follows the style of the Washington Post‘s Alan Cooperman by talking to people he finds to be average evangelical voters, he comes to a completely different conclusion: the Foley Scandal will not affect the evangelical turnout come November.

He also notes that while a Pew Research Center poll showed a significant drop in GOP support from conservative Christians, the Democrats failed to pick up any of that support. (As a side note, that confusing polling data Cooperman included in his article did in fact come from Pew. It just was not in the actual report. Pew picked it out for him.)

But where the article shines most brightly is in identifying a theological reason behind the failure of the Foley Scandal to affect the vote of conservative Christians. Agree or disagree with the findings, but you have to admit that this is an excellent detail that some reporters might think is too much into the weeds of the issue.

Charles W. Dunn, dean of the school of government at Regent University, founded here by the religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, said that so many conservative Christians were already in a funk about the party that “the Foley issue just opens up the potential floodgate for losses.” The tawdry accusations, Mr. Dunn said, “give life” to the charges of Republican corruption that had been merely “latent” in the minds of many voters.

But as far as culpability in the Foley case, Mr. Dunn said, House Republicans may benefit from the evangelical conception of sin. Where liberals tend to think of collective responsibility, conservative Christians focus on personal morality. “The conservative Christian audience or base has this acute moral lens through which they look at this, and it is very personal,” Mr. Dunn said. “This is Foley’s personal sin.”

To a person, those interviewed said that Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois should resign if he knew of the most serious claims against Mr. Foley and failed to stop him. They said the degree of Mr. Hastert’s responsibility remained to be seen. Many said the issue had not changed their view of Congress because, in their opinion, it could not sink any lower.

Kirkpatrick also includes a summary of the ideas proposed by conservative Christian “thought leaders” which is great, but I like it when reporters tell me something I don’t already know. I can get the views of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity easily on my own.

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New York Times takes on First Amendment

church state 01Some newspapers win Pulitzers through tenacious reporting, excellent prose and productive teamwork. The New York Times, which truly is one of my favorite papers, sometimes wins its Pulitzers by wielding its institutional clout, pulverizing readers with story after story about some expansive issue — seemingly dictated by editorial fiat rather than reader interest.

Who else suffered through that laughably bad Augusta National Golf Club bombardment? Apparently then-editor Howell Raines decided that the greatest problem facing America in 2002 was the failure of Augusta National to admit women as members. Never mind that Augusta National is a private club in a free country and that women could and did play the course as much as they liked. Yep, we needed to be treated to 40-plus news stories, columns and editorials about the horrors facing wealthy folks in Georgia.

And then there was that cloying Race in America series in 2000. And yes, it won a Pulitzer. I kind of imagine the Pulitzer committee decided on the award as a means to get the Times to just stop with all the stories already.

Compared to those sanctimonious series, the four-parter that ran this week isn’t so bad. Sure, it’s a guns-blazing attack on the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, but what do you expect from the Times?

I kid, I kid. I kid because I love.

The breathlessly titled In God’s Name series examines how churches benefit from a historically liberal interpretation of the First Amendment. The first story, weighing in at almost 5,000 words, focuses on regulatory exemptions for religious organizations that run social services. Day two focused on rights of employees at religious organizations. The third installment was about revenue bond financing for religious groups. Part four is about the tax-exemption bounty that awaits members of the clergy. Part four made me want to ask my dad — a pastor — why we were so poor growing up. Seriously, if The New York Times is to be believed, my parents need to explain the powdered milk and hand-me-downs. While I talk to them, you can peruse all the articles, graphics and supporting multimedia here.

Business reporter Diana Henriques covers an incredibly interesting topic. It’s safe to say that the understanding of how the government treats religious entities has varied over time. I’m on record as someone concerned about government financing or support of any and all religious entities. We’ll look at the series in a few posts to see how well Henriques handled the weighty and complex questions. Here’s how she sets up her central thesis on day one:

In recent years, many politicians and commentators have cited what they consider a nationwide “war on religion” that exposes religious organizations to hostility and discrimination. But such organizations — from mainline Presbyterian and Methodist churches to mosques to synagogues to Hindu temples — enjoy an abundance of exemptions from regulations and taxes. And the number is multiplying rapidly.

Some of the exceptions have existed for much of the nation’s history, originally devised for Christian churches but expanded to other faiths as the nation has become more religiously diverse. But many have been granted in just the last 15 years — sometimes added to legislation, anonymously and with little attention, much as are the widely criticized “earmarks” benefiting other special interests.

Now, maybe it’s just my economics background, but is the story here the expansion of the First Amendment or the overwhelming expansion of regulation? It means nothing at all that there is an increase in exemptions for religious organizations without knowing how many additional regulatory burdens there are overall! In other words, if there are 2,000 additional regulations facing all nonprofit organizations and 200 additional exemptions for churches written into legislation (anonymously! gasp! and with little attention! gasp!), then that’s a net of 1,800 additional regulations on churches. I don’t know what the actual numbers are, but all I could think of while reading the piece was how regulatory burdens have increased exponentially in the last 50 years.

Because of the increase in regulations, I would be surprised if the government did not write a significant number of exemptions for religious organizations — if only to keep on the right side of the law. And Henriques’ shady comparison of earmarks — directly funneling money to specific people — with the lifting of regulatory burdens is choice, if I may borrow a word from my childhood.

I find it incredibly funny that the solution the Times envisions for a disparity between regulatory burden for churches and other groups is to jack up regulations on nonprofits. I don’t think Henriques talked to a single person — even though there are many who would have loved to make this point — who said that they believe American businesses, nonprofits and individuals are drowning in a flood of regulations.

establishment clauseEither way, when dealing with a contentious topic, reporters should be careful to source everything:

The changes reflect, in part, the growing political influence of religious groups and the growing presence of conservatives in the courts and regulatory agencies. But these tax and regulatory breaks have been endorsed by politicians of both major political parties, by judges around the country, and at all levels of government.

That’s the paper of record, folks. How come my editors never let me write broad and unsubstantiated statements such as these? I feel like the standards should be lower for me than for flashy Times reporters.

She hammers the idea that religious exemptions cost society. While churches don’t pay property taxes, for instance, they are served by police departments. (Let’s not hold our breath for Henriques’ next series on why the poor should not have their fires extinguished.) But readers would be better served by her mentioning that congregations are full of taxpaying members. She might also have mentioned that some people don’t believe in double taxation at all.

I love the idea that a business reporter would look into these issues. But I think the series would have benefited from more economic balance. It definitely would have helped to have Laurie Goodstein or another religion reporter on board. Heck, Linda “I am the Alpha and Omega of all things Factual” Greenhouse would have been helpful! Knowing, for instance, that different religions have different views on female pastors, homosexuality, debt, usury and insurance could help explain why the federal government would be violating the Establishment Clause if it mandated that religious entities follow regulations on same.

Stay tuned for more coverage on the series.

Photo via Riles3821 on Flickr.

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