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?

[Read more...]

Shock: Bishops decide to defend Catholic tradition!

OK, let’s deal with some basic questions about Catholic bishops and politics.

In terms of basic journalism language, when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released pastoral documents about, oh, nuclear weapons, were these statements doctrinal or merely political?

When the bishops speak out on America’s actions abroad, let’s say in Iraq or the Middle East in general, are there statements doctrinal or merely political?

When the bishops release pastoral letters on issues of economic justice, are these statements merely political or are they rooted in Catholic social teachings, scripture and tradition? We should ask the same question about the bishops and their longstanding support of health-care reform. Yes, I know that politics can enter into the discussions of HOW BEST to pursue these aims, but no one wearing a bishop’s cross considers these goals to be mere politics.

How about discussions of abortion and euthanasia, topics that the Vatican has raised to the highest levels of doctrinal authority, arguing from the same theological principles as its teachings on the fundamental dignity of the poor, the suffering, the weak and, yes, the unborn. Is that mere politics? How about the death penalty? Immigration reform and the rights of immigrants? How about the deadly spiritual cancer of racism?

The bottom line, of course, is that journalists covering these kinds of Catholic statements and actions must attempt to recognize and grasp the doctrinal content linked to these public issues. Of course the bishops consider the political implications of their actions. But, in the end, they know that there are scriptures, traditions and doctrines that must be defended.

You see, in the ancient churches (hat tip to G.K. Chesterton) the saints have the right to vote. On many issues, the bishops cannot discuss whether or not to toss out 2,000 years of Christian tradition.

With that in mind, let’s look at the latest horror story from The Baltimore Sun, which is, alas, the home town newspaper whenever the bishops hold their meetings in the premier episcopal see of the Catholic Church here in America. By the way, when you get ready to click this link, pay attention to the actual content of the URL code. Interesting, right? And now the lede:

Meeting for the first time since voters in Maryland and two other states legalized same-sex marriage, members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said Tuesday that they have no plans to soften their position that genuine marriage can occur only between one man and one woman.

They have “no plans to soften their position” on the definition of marriage? Who do the members of the Sun team think these bishops are, for heaven’s sake? Baptists? Episcopalians? Presbyterians? Free-church evangelicals? The actual issue, of course, is what strategy the bishops will choose to pursue in defending centuries of doctrine on this topic — first and foremost within their own complex and divided flock. That’s the heart of the story.

Yes, we must read on:

Over the past year, a variety of hot-button issues have put the church and its teachings in the public spotlight. While some activists this week urged the church to focus on its mission of aiding the poor instead of politics, church leaders started looking for better ways to articulate their positions and win converts to their stances on issues that have played out in the political arena. …

The bishops said they plan to refocus their opposition to a provision of President Barack Obama’s health care law that requires most employers, including religious institutions, to provide health insurance covering contraception.

Once again, the newspaper avoids the actual issue in the health-care fight. The bishops support health-care reform, as they have for decades. The issue is whether the government can mandate that Catholic institutions provide products and services to their own employees — people who voluntarily work for Catholic ministries or who choose to attend Catholic schools — that the church’s doctrines proclaim are sinful.

Looming in the background is an even larger Constitutional issue, which is whether the government can recognize one level of religious freedom when doctrines are linked to worship, while refusing to recognize the same level of religious liberty when doctrines lead to actions in religious ministries that interact with the public. Is a Catholic parish fundamentally more religious than a Catholic soup kitchen? Is a Catholic Sunday school Catholic, while a Catholic high school is not?

When reading this article, please look for evidence that the Sun team has any willingness to accurately quote the voices of activists on both sides of that debate. Does the Sun leadership know that this is the topic being debated, or are the editors convinced that this whole public-square fight — involving Catholics, Orthodox Jews, Muslims, evangelical Protestants and other traditionalists — is mere a political spat about politics, about opposition to the current occupant of the White House?

Was that the case with nuclear weapons, racism, poverty, the Iraqi war, health care, immigration, labor, the death penalty and other public issues?

Come on people, cover the real debates, including the ones that are rooted in eternal principles, as well as fleeting politics. Do some reading. Ask some tough questions to informed people on both sides.

Come on. It’s journalism. Give it a try.


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