Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Pundits Position on Politics

Anytime you see a letter in your mailbox with the words "IRS" on the return address, that'll get your attention pretty fast. In like fashion, four influential pundits are weighing in on the question of whether the United Church of Christ violated IRS regulations because of Barack Obama's General Synod speech.

The Hartford Courant, the Connecticut newspaper that provided good coverage of Synod events, makes a pretty passionate statement, evident in its editorial by-line: "IRS Goes Overboard":
The IRS is out of line. It is investigating the tax-exempt status of the United Church of Christ solely because its most famous member, Sen. Barack Obama, spoke at the church's annual conference last summer.

Tax laws bar nonprofits from supporting candidates, but not from listening to them. That right is protected by the same First Amendment that forbids government sponsorship of a religion...

(Obama's) few "my first term as president"-type slips were not great enough to warrant the IRS threat that followed eight months later...

(The IRS letter) to the church questioned whether "political activities" at the conference "could jeopardize" the UCC's tax exemption. Isn't that a bit excessive? The IRS should be policing nonprofits suspected of funneling money from donors skirting contribution limits, not stifling speech at houses of worship.
Seems like what really bothers the Courant is the strict line that prohibits politicians from making candidate speeches before church groups. Instead of railing against the IRS, they need to direct their wrath at Americans United or changing IRS tax code.

Raising suspicions too of IRS motives is Rev. Susan Thistlethwaite, President of Chicago Theological Seminary. Writing at the Washington Post's "On Faith" site, she charges the IRS is investigating the UCC simply because Obama gave a speech to them:
The IRS is accusing the UCC of engaging in "political activities." I believe the "political activities" are on the other foot. The UCC General Synod was in June of 2007... It is only now fully nine months later, when Senator Obama has become the front-runner in the race for President, that this investigation is launched.

I was present when Senator Obama gave this speech at General Synod... It was an extraordinary speech... The narrative structure of the speech was to take the audience with him as he went from his conversion to a personal faith in Jesus Christ to the broad theme of meaning and purpose in human life... If anyone could think that’s engaging in "political activities" than I have a bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to sell you...

Read the full text of the speech and all the relevant documents by going to the UCC website and judge for yourself.

The "narrative arc" of this speech tracks the "narrative arc" of how we as Americans respect our Constitution and also passionately engage in public service as a higher calling.
Thistlethwaite dismisses the IRS charge because the heart of Obama's speech was one man's view of how faith works in the public square. Her speech analysis is technically correct. But with Obama mentioning his presidential candidacy--not once, but twice-- Thistlethwaite overlooks where the pinnacle of that "narrative arc" ultimately leads: straight to the Oval Office.

Being involved in the public arena is part of the UCC's DNA, so writes Rev. Davida Foy Crabtree, Conference Minister for Connecticut, in a Hartford Courant guest column. She says the denomination went to great lengths to insure everything was done properly. In lieu of this, she worries about the chilling effect the IRS' actions might have on people of faith:
Our members are expected to apply the faith to their work and daily life and are encouraged to enter the public arena as civil servants, political leaders and government officials. So our inviting a prominent UCC senator to speak about how his faith informs his public responsibility is in keeping with a long tradition of engaging personal faith and public life.

Any attempt by government through the IRS and other agencies to define what is appropriate religious practice must be resisted. For the United Church of Christ and similar denominations, our work on universal health care, the elimination of poverty and numerous other social justice issues is absolutely intrinsic to our faith practice. So we have to talk to political figures and we need them to talk to us, especially when they are members of our denomination.

The Internal Revenue Service has normatively been even-handed in its enforcement of these regulations. I believe the agency needs to revisit its process. A simple dialogue with our leaders would have established that the facts contradict the complaint. Instead, given the facts in this case, by issuing this letter the agency risks encumbering the free practice of religion.
Rev. Crabtree is muddying the issue. This isn't about the "free practice of religion," or whether people of faith can engage in politics, or even who a denomination can invite to its meetings. The question is specifically: Did the United Church of Christ illegally promote the candidacy of Barack Obama and did Obama illegally give a candidate speech to a religious body?

Jeffrey Lord, writing at the American Spectator, gives some interesting background on why we have the strict IRS rules currently in place. He lays blame for the UCC's mess squarely in the lap of the one who stood before the General Synod and said he's running for President:
Dear Senator Obama: Our common denomination, the United Church of Christ, has a suddenly serious legal and financial problem with the Internal Revenue Service. You, personally, are the cause of this problem. Candidly? I think you owe it to those of us who are your fellow congregants to help repair the damage that you have done...

Frankly, Senator, this is shameful. You are a United States Senator. A potential President of the United States. You are conducting a campaign making judgment an issue -- and this was exactly an issue of judgment and understanding. You of all people should have understood that your appearance in Hartford once you were an announced candidate for president would cause the UCC severe problems with the IRS.
Mr. Lord, a former official in the Reagan administration, goes a bit overboard with fears that Obama's actions could result in his small Pennsylvania church losing its tax-exempt status. And apparently, he wrote his piece before it was announced that the UCC secured free legal representation.

However, Lord is the only commentator who understands that Obama crossed the legal line when he said he's running for President. And, he the only one looking squarely at the UCC's questionable actions, like the press release quoting an Obama official saying that the speech was a "major address on faith and politics as a presidential candidate."

As these four illustrate, whenever you get a letter from the IRS, you're right to be afraid.
Meantime, I'd like to see IRS rules relaxed, so churches and candidates need not fear one another, nor the IRS.

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