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?

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Yo, Politico: IRS commits — not violates — sins

Isn’t it interesting how unfamiliar some folks are with religious language?

A reporter passed on this example and it’s telling. It comes from a Politico story about why no one at IRS will ever be held accountable for targeting people for their political beliefs (turns out such targeting is a no-no in our country — who knew?). “Heads won’t roll at the IRS” begins:

Lawmakers pressing for more heads to roll at the Internal Revenue Service are going to be disappointed.

“Why weren’t more people fired?” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) demanded at a hearing Tuesday on the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups, channeling the frustration of his colleagues.

Turns out it’s not so easy.

In fact, it appears that no one has been formally reprimanded and a spokesperson for the union representing IRS workers said it hasn’t been called to help any employees yet. Most employees involved in the targeting program are covered by protections for federal workers that could drag out the termination process.

I wrote a story in 2003 about how federal data indicated that not a single employee at Labor, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Energy, Education, Veterans Affairs and State had been fired in the previous five years, despite all of the reports of poor performance at each agency. I doubt things have changed much since then. Perhaps they have gotten worse.

In any case, this IRS story does turn out to have quite a few interesting religion angles (on that note, maybe you’ll want to see Sarah Posner defend the IRS for its actions against various Americans over at The Guardian‘s “Comment is Free” section).

But this is the section that shows the importance of getting religious lingo right:

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IRS scandal and ‘easy’ religion ghosts

On a recent Crossroads podcast, host Todd Wilken remarked with interest on how many of the year’s major news stories have to do with religion. A cursory glance at the headlines proves it, year after year. But even the non-religion news stories frequently have religion angles.

And so it is with one of the scandals embroiling the Obama administration right now. IRS officials have admitted (via a cartoonish plot to plant a question in front of reporters) the agency wrongly targeted certain groups that had applied for tax-exempt status. Most of the news has focused on the surprising/appalling news that groups were singled out for scrutiny if their group hoped to be “educating on the Constitution and Bill of Rights” among other Tea Party-ish things. This being an egregious abuse of power, looks like we’re in for a long hot summer of getting to the bottom of just what he heck went wrong.

But there is a religion angle. Some reporters have conflated two separate issues. On the one hand, we know that the IRS was targeting groups applying for tax-exempt status. They’ve admitted it. On the other hand, we have many stories about the IRS scrutinizing groups (including religious groups) that already had tax-exempt status. These might be related stories but we’re really still in the fact-gathering stage of this scandal. So keep that in mind when you hear reports from hear and there about curious goings-on. Here’s an RNS report about religious groups that talked about scrutiny they’d faced.

At a hearing today about the initial issue, Rep. Aaron Shock asked IRS officials about why they had asked some groups to provide information about their prayer vigils. You can watch the 2:00 clip here, which includes the IRS official responding that he was unable to say whether this line of questioning was appropriate or not.

You can read the Thomas More Society’s documents or pro-life media for more on this story and why it’s important to the larger debate (e.g., the scrutiny of these groups began in 2009, earlier than the IRS claims its higher scrutiny of some groups began). I’m surprised we haven’t seen more mainstream media coverage of this angle.

But Yahoo had a good report which included the original language from the IRS. (And props to the Washington Examiner for having this story days before the hearing, with a solid report on the initial claims.) The Washington Post‘s Slate site had a fascinating spin on this that gets to the desire of some reporters to move on from the fact-gathering stage … and with less-than-ideal results. Reporter Dave Weigel says that the story may sound incredible, but ….:

Like I said, incredible — which when you think about it tells you how quickly the Overton Window has shifted. If you read the document trove, CFLOI ended up handing the feds documentation on stem cells, on the viability of life in the womb, etc. The IRS accepted this; the group got tax-exempt status. The scandal, obviously, is that there’s something inherently evil about inquiring into the “content of prayers.” But the agency was easily satisfied. The point of the story isn’t that Christianity is being oppressed in America.

I’d just encourage reporters to stick with the first job of explaining the whos and the whats and the wheres of the story. I mean, where do we get the idea that the IRS was easily satisfied? Seriously? Where does that come from? Because if you read the Thomas More Society’s side of things, that is precisely the opposite of what went on. Dramatically different, in fact. I don’t know how you could read their document dump and get that idea:

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