MAY 13, 2002
-- Martin E. Marty
Motivated by panic over the Goldwater presidential campaign, the editors of The Christian Century briefly in 1964 supported Lyndon B. Johnson, and said so on their cover. Roughshod-riding evangelist Billy James Hargis then sicced the IRS on the magazine. It lost tax-exempt status for a year. Since then more religious agencies have become occupied with support of policies and politicians, and risked crossing the blurry lines between the legally permissible and restricted speech.
In an offprint which just reached me from the Boston College Law Review (July 2001), attorney Steffen N. Johnson, who used to drop by my studio -- he's now in governmental work in Washington -- examines the pros and cons of life along those blurry lines and finds them, yes, blurry. He is in search of balance, or is weighing opposite attractions, and seems to be hoping that "churches" do not overplay their hands in blatant and consistent support of candidates or pieces of legislation. Meanwhile "the state" should not wield too big a stick to frighten or discipline groups that have issues to press growing out of their religious vision.
That the IRS should be armed with instruments to inhibit people from setting up religious fronts to find tax-exempt "around-the-law" ways of being merely political is not a controversial notion. That religious groups almost inevitably will be speaking out, or working on policy issues that they think are congruent with their views of the Good or the Godly is also widely understood. Johnson analyzes the rationales usually given by government, by crossers-of-the-line or by watchdogs on this front, and finds some wanting.
Thus he does not think focus "on the government's interest in not compelling taxpayers to subsidize political speech with which they disagree" is very much in place. The law does say that religious agencies are not to make tax-exempt promotion a "substantial part of their activities." But what, he asks, is "substantial?"
More fundamental is the question of whether churches' tax-exempt propagandizing and politicking is "unseemly" [or "seemly?"]. Here, too, Johnson finds it hard to draw a thin and strong and clear line. He seems to trust the informed conscience of the religious to have a sense of where the line is to be drawn in each case. Given the voices of conscience we have heard among the religious in our time on one hand, and, on the other, the devil-may-care and in-your-face ways the less seemly churches in politics have been acting, there is naught for one's assurance in the world Johnson describes. But it's the only one we have or are likely to get. And it's a messy one.