The Internal Revenue Service is doing its best to educate America’s religious leaders about provisions in the tax code that bar churches and other non-profits from intervening in partisan political campaigns.
In late February, the IRS issued a detailed report noting that it examined allegations of improper political activity by 132 non-profit groups. The tax agency also outlined new procedures it is putting in place to alert religious leaders and ensure compliance with the law as the nation enters the 2006 election cycle.
Americans United has followed this issue for many years. Occasionally someone asks, “What’s the big deal?” or “Why does it matter if a church endorses a candidate?”
Those questions have a short answer and a long answer.
The short answer is that non-profit, 501(c)(3) groups exist to serve the public good and are not supposed to be focused on partisan politics. There are other vehicles for that, such as political action committees.
The long answer is more complex and touches on several larger issues.
The intersection of religion and politics does not need to be a cold and sterile place. Religious voices can and do contribute to the public debate. These days, they seem to have more than their share of access. Despite the Religious Right’s constant complaints of being marginalized, religion is, in fact, rampant in the public square. If anything, the Religious Right has undue influence over the White House, Congress and, increasingly, the federal courts.
But that type of influence, as strong as it is, is not enough for some Religious Right leaders. They want more control; they want more power. And they are looking to political leaders to give it to them. To bring this about, they champion the creation of church-based political machines harnessed to a specific candidate or political party.
The danger here should be obvious. Political parties driven by sectarian fervor led to decades of bloodshed and mutual distrust in Northern Ireland. The arrangement sparked civil war in Lebanon. It threatens to plunge Iraq into civil war, as every day headlines scream of mounting “sectarian violence.”
Some would say it’s alarmist to even suggest that such things could happen here. Yet our country is already increasingly divided over the agenda of the Religious Right.
Religious Right leaders are salivating at the prospect of overturning legal abortion, an action that could occur as soon as one more Supreme Court seat opens up. Leaders of the movement celebrate the addition of anti-gay marriage constitutional amendments in the states and promote the concept in others. They seek new laws giving pharmacists a legal right to refuse to dispense certain doctor-prescribed medications. They demand an end to stem-cell research, even if it will save lives. Religious Right groups insist that their theological views be reflected in the public school curriculum and are increasingly winning access to your tax dollars for a variety of “faith-based” initiatives.
The very idea of secular government as a positive feature of the American system is under attack by shrill TV preachers and their followers who reject the concept of separation of church and state.
If these trends continue, if the federal courts accept interpretation of Scriptures as a legitimate basis for laws, we will be living in a de facto theocracy. This is not alarmist; it is reality.
Eager to bring this about, some far-right pastors want to disregard federal tax law and plunge head first into partisan politicking. The IRS has announced it will not stand for this. This action by the tax agency is appropriate, and it is important that it succeed. There may be more at stake than most Americans imagine.
A Baptist Ally In The Fight For Freedom
Phil Strickland, a former member of the Americans United Board of Trustees and leading Southern Baptist official in Texas, died Feb. 11 after a long battle with cancer. He was only 64 and will be greatly missed.
Phil served nine years on the AU Board from 1982 to 1991. He was a traditionalist Baptist from the old school. Like his denominational ancestors, Phil understood that only separation of church and state can guarantee meaningful religious liberty. He spoke from that perspective constantly, as a person of faith.
When fundamentalists began taking over the Southern Baptist Convention in the early 1980s, Phil rose to meet them. He organized moderate forces in Texas and rallied on behalf of traditional Baptist stands, like liberty of conscience for all. Thanks to his work and others like him, the Baptist General Convention of Texas never fell to the fundamentalists.
Phil well understood the dangers of mixing rigid theology and government power.
“Fundamentalists think they have all the answers,” Phil told the Dallas Morning News in November. “They’re not willing to listen and learn. In all of its shapes, whether it’s Christian or Jewish or Hindu, fundamentalism is virtually always destructive.”
Bookish and easy-going, Phil hated injustice and was appalled at the idea that anyone should go hungry. He was founding chairman of the advocacy group Texans Care for Children and served on the board of Bread for the World, an international relief organization.
We’ll miss Phil’s passion, intellect and commitment. He has left us too soon, and we are poorer today because of it.