One of my favorite stories about politicians and religion deals with President Calvin Coolidge, who, as the story goes, was once approached by a reporter after attending a church service and asked what the sermon had been about.
“Silent Cal” replied, “sin,” which led the reporter to ask, “What did the preacher say about it?”
Replied Coolidge, “He was against it.”
I feel the same way about lying. I stand firmly against it. So, indulge me for another column about the continued misinformation being spread by the Rev. Jerry Falwell. Recently I wrote about some of the false claims he makes about me; now I’d like to comment on some of the false claims he makes about himself and the Internal Revenue Service.
On July 15, I wrote a letter to the IRS alleging that Falwell used the resources and website of a tax-exempt entity, Jerry Falwell Ministries, to endorse George W. Bush for president. He also linked his site to that of former presidential candidate Gary Bauer’s political action committee, the misnamed “Campaign for Working Families,” to make it easy to give money to Bush and other GOP candidates.
These actions are violations of federal tax law. Falwell is free to endorse a candidate in his personal capacity as a minister, just like a lawyer, an auto mechanic or an organic farmer could. But he is not permitted to use the website or publications of a tax-exempt group to further partisan ends. Also, tax-exempt groups cannot use their resources to promote political action committees that seek to elect certain candidates to public office.
A day after my letter was delivered to the IRS, CNBC’s “Capital Report” invited Falwell and me to debate the issue. Falwell made a convoluted argument, insisting that his website is owned by a non-tax-exempt group and therefore has the right to promote Bush. The whole thing sounded like one of those “hide the pea under the shell” games you wouldn’t play at a backwoods carnival.
I responded that listeners would perhaps not want to take tax advice from Falwell, since in 1993 his Old Time Gospel Hour (OTGH) had admitted to violations of federal tax law. The television ministry lost its tax exemption for politicking in 1986 and 1987 and was forced to pay $50,000 in back taxes.
Falwell went absolutely ballistic. He said I was lying. He announced that his church in Lynchburg, Va., had never lost its tax exemption. That’s true, but irrelevant. As I pointed out on the air, it was the Old Time Gospel Hour that ran afoul of federal tax law, not his church.
Falwell continued to deny that any of his organizations had ever lost their exemptions even for a minute. Remember, I put a premium on truth-telling. Before going on the air, I had reviewed media coverage from l993 and dug up an old New York Times story about the incident. I was right, he was wrong, and no manner of bullying and screaming was going to change that. Yet two weeks later, Falwell repeated the same denials in a debate with AU’s Rob Boston on Fox New Channel’s “The Big Story with John Gibson.”
Not long after that, we obtained a copy of the public statement the IRS required Falwell to issue in the aftermath of the federal agency’s audit. Dated Feb. 17, 1993, and signed by Falwell, the document could not be clearer. It reads in part, “OTGH agrees to the two-year revocation of tax exempt status, based on the IRS finding that it engaged in political activity, and the payment of $50,000 for tax deficiencies.”
On Aug. 8, I got a golden opportunity to use the statement during another debate with Falwell on Fox News Channel. I took the document with me and literally held it up to the camera when Falwell started his denial rant again. The host told him to be quiet long enough for me to explain the significance of the statement.
And, proving that three is still a charm, Falwell was finally forced to concede the truth – but belittled it by saying he had agreed to pay back taxes only to avoid increasing legal fees to fight the ongoing audit. So much for principle.
Everything is not a “he said/ she said” argument. Call me old fashioned, but sometimes the truth is even ascertainable. Rather than have to carry this letter with me every time I’m on television with Falwell, I’d rather he just admit once and for all that he violated tax law and had to pay the IRS $50,000.
Falwell has just announced that he will be holding a conference for pastors in late September that will include an in-depth session on the IRS and electioneering. I would be happy to present my point of view there, but I’m not holding my breath waiting for an invitation. (Once on CNN, I offered to preach at Falwell’s church, which led him to snap, “I wouldn’t let you preach in a corner!”)
Falwell isn’t interested in what tax law really says. He’d rather spread more misinformation and try to continue covering up his own past misdeeds.
Any pastor foolish enough to follow him is likely to end up in the same type of tax trouble Falwell experienced. And that’s the truth.
Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.