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The pulpit vs. the taxman

Religion and politics. You know better than to bring these topics up at a dinner party, right? But you do it anyway, and the next thing you know people are polarized and end up agreeing to disagree. Or you agree on how to make the world a better place, but the conversation changes nothing in the big wide world.

Separately the two topics are a can of worms, but you start mixing religion and politics and the combinations can be explosive, even deadly. Look to the nightly news for proof of what can happen when the two mix in the wrong combinations.

And yet, shouldn’t the two be in some sort of conversation? After all, we expect the government to protect our religious freedom. We also expect that people of faith will have their religious views effect their day to day lives, including for whom to vote.

But one California church is in the hot seat with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) who is threatening to revoke the church’s status as a non-profit due to what the government calls improper campaigning during the last presidential election. The church is the well-heeled All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California. Specifically at issue was a sermon by a guest preacher, the Rev. Dr. George F. Regas, who was the previous pastor of the church. Regas gave an October 31, 2004, sermon titled “If Jesus Debated Senator Kerry and President Bush.”

You can read the sermon for yourself at, but I can say here that the first words of that sermon were “Jesus does win! I don’t intend to tell you how to vote.” And Regas kept his word and never did tell the people in the pews how to vote. The sermon was in fact critical of both candidates for their views on war and poverty yet the IRS noted the statements against the President as politicking on behalf of John Kerry.

A Los Angeles Times editorial noted the unfairness of the IRS investigation as a neighboring church had gone so far as to tell its members exactly how to vote and yet it faced no similar charges. Sidestepping the fairness of the issue, the church’s pastor, Ed Bacon said in a recent sermon “Neighbor Love Is Never Neutral, “The current administration of the IRS apparently thinks that religious organizations should stay neutral when political issues are concerned. What that thinking totally misses is that we do not have a choice about whether or not to be neutral in the face of dehumanization, injustice, and violence. Our faith mandates that always stopping short of endorsing or opposing political candidates, the church can neither be silent nor indifferent when there are public policies causing detriment to the least of these.”

In another statement Bacon said our faith, “calls us to speak to the issues of war and poverty, bigotry, torture and all forms of terrorism.” And he added that it is imperative to “defend the freedom of pulpits in faith communities throughout the land.”

I believe that the statements I have read from All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena are dead on accurate that the church should neither be silent in the face of injustice nor should it endorse candidates. I also believe that the IRS needs to be neutral on preaching as to take a position seems to break the barrier between church and state in a way that should concern people of any faith and any political persuasion.

What is at stake here is both the separation of church and state, which the IRS is seeking to preserve, and the ability of the church to speak prophetically to the culture. First, as to church and state. I realize that the IRS is not attempting to abridge the right to free speech. They would not tell any preacher what he or she can and can not preach. What they want to do is to say that if you endorse candidates and stump for a particular person or party then you can not avoid tax payments as a religious institution. It is not that the IRS will limit speech, but they will limit church speech to topics they deem in keeping with the purposes of a religious institution. And that makes me nervous.

Personally, I feel that my views on whom I vote for are not for public broadcast. I do what I expect all people of faith do in voting. I say my prayers and then cast my votes. I know that faithful Christians often disagree on the best candidate and this is just fine. This side of the kingdom of God, no earthly power is going to get it all right all the time anyway. And God will work in and through any person of any background and will work in spite of any person of any background. This is not to say that for whom we vote is of no consequence, but to say that we can not and will not usher in heaven on earth no matter who lives in the governor’s mansion or the White House. However in hindsight it is clear the church did not speak up loud enough or strongly enough against Hilter and Mussolini and it ushered in hell on earth for millions.

This is why the church must be able to speak out against injustice. The Bible casts a different understanding of the world. It is an upside down view of life in which the least are the greatest and the last are first. Jesus says (in Matthew 25:31-46) that the judgment at the end of time will have everything to do with how the least are treated. Are the needy fed, clothed and comforted? If not, then we will have some explaining to do. So the church cannot hand over all its rights to speak against injustice even if that means dancing the thin line that sometimes separates politics and religion.

I don’t have to stump for any candidate to speak up for those who are hungry, naked, sick or in prison. But I do need to be able to speak plainly to the ways in which we as Christians have a responsibility to seek justice in the here and now. We do this knowing that no candidate, no political party, and no government will ever be so godly that it will not need someone to speak up for those with no voice or whose voice is going unheard. And there is no legal basis to tax that constitutionally protected speech.

(The Rev. Frank Logue is pastor of King of Peace Episcopal Church in Kingsland.)

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