May 19, 2008
On the IRS
— Martin E. Marty
Billy James Hargis, a now forgotten but once towering figure on the not yet couth religious right, built a radio ministry and developed an anti-Communist front that has to be remembered as rabid. The preacher of righteousness was so overtly political that the Internal Revenue Service tabbed him for violating revenue regulations. Having to pay taxes for a year is not what did him in. What weakened his empire and led to his demise was the standard brand "over the top moralist" syndrome. As the press delighted in telling, a female alum of his American Christian College, on her wedding night, confessed to her groom that she had had sexual relations with their college president. On fairness grounds he responded, "So did I!"
Hargis wanted to take others down with him and fingered The Christian Century as a violator. The year was 1964, and in the Goldwater-Johnson campaign the magazine's cover bannered "Goldwater No!" So far so good. Then it followed, in a momentary fit of affirmation, with a cover, "Johnson Yes!" No, no, and no! Hargis inspired the I.R.S to pursue the magazine, which, knowing it was guilty, lost its tax-exemption that year.
The IRS regulation does not permit a 501 (c) (3) tax exempt organization to deploy major energies or resources in support of specific candidates or legislation up for debate. The topic has become urgent in 2008, because religion has become ever more prominent in partisan politics, clerics have backed or fronted for candidates, candidates have sought church leadership support, some borderline-violators are being sought out and some of them are fighting back—strenuously.
Some years ago the IRS pursued a Texas Catholic diocese, whose bishop had the diocesan paper respond in a headline which, if I recall correctly, reduced everything to one word: "Nuts!" What IRS person is going to pursue the question further? Presidential candidates have regularly trouped to churches to give inspirational messages which could not not be partisan and vote-seeking. The IRS is closely watched by those who discern selective enforcement. Watch for more.
Some of the intentional violators are fighting back through legal fronts. Thus Suzanne Sataline told in the Wall Street Journal (May 9) how "Pastors May Defy IRS Gag Rule," and that a "Legal Group Urges Ministers to Preach About Candidates." The group is the Alliance Defense Fund, which aggressively promotes preachers of politics in pulpits so overtly that the IRS will some day have to swoop and the ADF can showcase government suppression of religious freedom. We are going to have a very busy set of enforcers. The black churches advertise nothing new in their actions: Great numbers of them have turned their pulpits over to politicians. "Justice Sunday" promoters work at the borders of legality as they instruct churches how to use their power to get votes for favored candidates and policies.
How stay clean and legal? You will hear preachers on the left, muzzled by tax law, telling you that no prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures could have survived the new scrutiny. (All Democrats?!?) But, then, they were acting within overt theocratic bounds. Few are sure as to where the bounds are now. Be thankful you are not a judge in these matters and enjoy the campaigns (more outside the sanctuary than in it, one hopes), and that churchly voices then find ways to be heard and be in the thick of things. Meanwhile, "501 (c) (3)" comes to view more frequently than "John 3: 16."
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
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