Summer 1999, Vol. 2, No. 2

Contents Page,
Vol. 2, No. 2


Quick Links
to other articles
in this issue:
A Different Spiritual Politics

Preaching the Word in Littleton

On the Beat: In Lagos, Religion’s Above the Fold

Something Wiccan This Way Comes

Kosovo: A Confusion of Tongues

The Diallo Killings: Sharpton Ecumenistes

Methodism’s Time of Trials

Correspondence: Was the Church Arson Story Legit?

Spiritual Politicking and the IRS

by G. Jeffrey MacDonald

When news broke in June that the IRS had deemed the Christian Coalition too partisan to enjoy the privilege of tax-exemption, a chorus of newspaper editorials cheered in harmony.

"There is nothing wrong if a group of people choose to believe that the Republican Party is the party of God and to attempt to affect the outcome of elections on that basis," the Tulsa World asserted. "But there is something very wrong with doing it in a dishonest manner, under the guise of a nonprofit, tax-exempt religious group." Declared the Sarasota Herald Tribune: "The decision is welcome and, we hope, will prompt reviews of other organizations that appear to distort the intention of laws designed to help non-profits."

Since 1954, all tax-exempt groups have been prohibited by federal statute from engaging in partisan politics. Tax-exempt religious organizations may comment on political issues but must refrain altogether from endorsing or raising money for candidates or any political party. At times, however, that apparently clear line has become blurry and problematic. Since its creation in 1989, the Christian Coalition has enlisted local churches to distribute voter-education guides that grade candidates according to their positions on particular domestic issues. With some justice, critics say the guides stack the deck in favor of Republicans-skewing the formulation of issue positions so as to systematically favor GOP candidates. In its 10-year bid for tax-exempt status, the Coalition nonetheless persevered in arguing that it had no preference for either party.

Sensitivity to the principle of church-state separation has generally made the IRS reluctant to intervene when third parties allege political improprieties on the part of religious institutions. But the Christian Coalition case and another involving a local church’s public attacks on Bill Clinton during the 1992 presidential campaign proved impossible to ignore. Decisions this year in both cases triggered national coverage and a flurry of media opinion on an issue that has rarely been discussed in the press.

Perhaps because of a sense that electoral politics has been the Christian Coalition’s main business, newspapers did not protest the IRS’s refusal to grant it tax-exempt status. To the contrary, the editorials began with the same premise, enunciated this way by the Boston Globe: "Religious groups have as much right as any organization to engage in political activity. But they shouldn’t expect their partisan campaign work to be subsidized by the taxpayers." But since the Coalition had decided to reorganize itself with a tax-exempt wing as well as a political action committee, the IRS, said the Globe, "should remain vigilant."

Some editorials looked beyond the Christian Coalition per se to larger issues of religion in American political life. The Charleston (W.V.) Gazette denounced religious conservatives en masse: "For decades, so-called ‘religious right’ groups have pretended they’re religious, not political. But in reality, they’re a far-right appendage of the Republican Party....In fact, some of their goals are totally political, without any discernible religious connection." For its part, the Seattle Times cheered the IRS ruling as offering hope amid an insidiously rising tide of religion in politics across the ideological spectrum. "Just as political factions of the Christian right shrink or change focus, candidates of every stripe are misusing their platforms as pulpits....Today, every national candidate, it seems, is talking about God...[but] the canned effusions of spirituality sound hollow."

But not all newspapers have seen a vigilant IRS as the key to purer politics. Prior to the Christian Coalition ruling, a strong contrary opinion held that the IRS had sullied the political process by selectively enforcing the prohibition against political activity by religious bodies.

That perspective came to the fore this Spring after a U.S. District Court upheld the IRS’s revocation of the tax-exempt status of the Church at Pierce Creek, near Binghamton, N.Y. The non-denominational Protestant church, which counts anti-abortion activist Randall Terry as a member, in 1992 took out full-page advertisements in USA Today and the Washington Times attacking then-candidate Bill Clinton. The ads were headlined, "Christian Beware," and declared, "Bill Clinton is promoting policies that are in rebellion to God’s laws."

Because the ads named the church as sponsor and solicited tax-deductible donations from sympathetic underwriters, the IRS-prompted by a complaint from Americans United for Separation of Church and State-investigated whether the church had violated its obligation to remain politically non-partisan. After the revocation was handed down in 1995, the outraged church took the agency to court. In March, U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman cited the same factors as the IRS in ruling that the IRS was "justified in revoking the tax-exempt status."

Days after the judge’s decision came down, the Daily Oklahoman alleged that the IRS was using a double standard, targeting conservative religious tax-exempts and turning a blind eye toward liberal ones that break the same rules. In the 1998 election, liberal churches "endorsed favored politicians by turning over their pulpits to them," the Oklahoman claimed. "Why hasn’t that sparked IRS interest in their tax-exempt status?... If the IRS is going to prohibit conservative churches from political activity, it must apply the ban to liberal congregations as well. Better yet, the IRS should leave all churches alone, free to speak with vigor and passion on important moral questions."

The Cleveland Plain Dealer agreed: "[B]y pursuing some apparent offenders of these rules, but not others, the IRS adds to a perception that begins with LBJ’s partisan motives 45 years ago and is parlous close to reality today: a tilt in enforcement toward conservative organizations, religious and otherwise. If there are to be rules, they should be clear. If they are to be enforced, they should be enforced consistently. But it’s time to rethink the reason for the rules at all."

"LBJ’s partisan motives" referred to the legislative history of the 1954 rule banning political partisanship by non-profits. According to an August 1998 story in the Washington Times, then-Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson had pushed through the rule to revenge himself on two conservative groups that had challenged his seat. "Born of Lyndon Johnson’s Texas politics, not the U.S. Constitution," the rule, said the conservative Washington daily, was and always had been used to persecute political enemies. In line with this point of view, the Times ran an article in November pointing out that the IRS had failed to revoke the tax exemption of a Baltimore church that had hosted Bill Clinton two days before the election.

After the Pierce Creek decision, the Indianapolis Star taxed the IRS with biased enforcement of the rule in a local case: "It may be because of those [conservative] political views that the IRS has chosen to make the [Indianapolis Baptist Temple] something of a cause celebre" by auditing more than 50 church staff members in 1996. Similarly, Frank Greve, a columnist for Knight-Ridder Newspapers, charged, "They [at the IRS] can’t explain what seems like a raft of recent investigations of right-wing groups." Among the targets Greve listed the Church at Pierce Creek, the Heritage Foundation, the American Spectator Educational Foundation, the Freedom Alliance, and the Western Journalism Center. All told, the IRS stood accused, along with its other sins, of going after religious conservatives in a frightening trend toward political persecution.

To be sure, other newspapers saw the Pierce Creek ruling in an entirely different light. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette called for more vigorous enforcement of the rule. Lamenting that the "ban on politicking by tax-exempt churches has been much skirted over the years," the paper found it "refreshing that a federal judge has stripped one church of its tax exemption for openly lobbying against the election of President Clinton." Whether churches host liberal Democratic candidates or distribute Christian Coalition voter guides, political parties unfairly become "beneficiaries of pulpit politics." The 1954 rule is a good one that ensures fair elections, the paper contended. The problem has lain in lackluster enforcement.

But among most supporters of the Pierce Creek ruling, the advisability of "pulpit politics" did not arise. "Religious groups that want to engage in partisan politics have every right to do so, but they must play by the same rules as everyone else," declared the New York Times. "The church can engage in partisan campaign activities, but it cannot ask taxpayers to subsidize those activities." The Salt Lake Tribune was blunter: "If they want to run anti-Clinton ads during a campaign, they can do so. They’ll just have to pay taxes too." Religious groups have "the same freedom as everyone else to take out hard-hitting newspaper advertisements in an effort to thwart a candidate for public office," said New Orleans Times-Picayune. "They are also free to enjoy the tax-exempt status that comes with a single-minded dedication to the Lord’s work. They just have to make a choice."

The issue is far from settled. The Church at Pierce Creek, now calling itself the Landmark Church, has resolved to appeal Judge Friedman’s decision. Americans United for Separation of Church and State has asked the IRS for similar rulings in cases where churches have hosted political candidates or distributed Christian Coalition voter guides. The IRS is reportedly investigating both types of cases. And although no one can say whether the normally taciturn IRS will act more often or more swiftly in the future, it is clear that prescriptions from both editorial camps point to ramifications that neither side has yet discussed.

Those who criticize the IRS for selective enforcement have proposed no alternative beyond the Daily Oklahoman’s suggestion that the rule simply not be enforced. But possibly excepting the Oklahoman, editorial pages on both sides of the issue agree that those with tax-exempt privileges should not be free to involve themselves in partisan politics. For most editorial writers, as for most of the rest of us, non-enforcement of federal law is a non-option.

Meanwhile, supporters of the Pierce Creek and Christian Coalition rulings have generally been content to encourage activist religious groups to pay taxes and take part in partisan politics as they choose. Should those groups follow that advice, however, American politics would take a turn unseen throughout most of this century. With rare exception, such as Protestants organizing in 1928 and 1960 to oppose Roman Catholic candidates for public office, religious organizations have been absent from partisan politics since the 19th century. Yet on the eve of the 21st century, an overtly religious group has plunged into fund raising and making endorsements for specific candidates. What does this move by the Christian Coalition mean for American politics – and for religious lobbying? Newspapers have so far largely said no comment, although two have tiptoed on the new ground.

[Because of an editor’s error, the published version of Religion in the News mistakenly included a different version of the above paragraph and of the second paragraph from the end.]

On one side, the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot asserted, "Ironically, the agency’s ruling could be liberating for the Coalition, allowing it to come out of the closet, so to speak. No longer will the group have to pretend that it doesn’t endorse candidates, and its clout may increase now that it can freely make campaign gifts." On the other, Palm Beach Post columnist George McEvoy wrote that skeptics "believe it was the religious aura that made the coalition strong in the first place, especially among evangelical Christians. Now that it has to admit that it is an out-and-out political pressure group, that appeal will be lost."

And if other religious interest groups follow the Coalition into open politicking—or are forced to do so by the IRS—what then? A network of tax-paying churches that funnels donations to certain candidates? Or openly lobbies Congress? God only knows.

Whatever the effectiveness of overt religious politics in the years to come, the hearty stew that is American politics has a potent new ingredient. How the new stew will taste remains uncertain, but one thing seems certain: It won’t taste the same.