Politics in the Pulpit: The IRS Cracks Down


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The LA Times has the story:
The Internal Revenue Service has warned one of Southern California's largest and most liberal churches that it is at risk of losing its tax-exempt status because of an antiwar sermon two days before the 2004 presidential election. A leader of the All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena announced the IRS warning in Sunday services a week ago.
According to the Times, the reverend who delivered the sermon never told parishioners explicitly who to vote for, although his pointed remarks about unjust wars and inequitable tax cuts really could only be construed as an anti-Bush slap.

The text of the sermon is on the All Saints website (at least until it crashes as a result of actually getting some visitors) here. About the first thing you read here is a statement that "I don't intend to tell you how to vote." And the rest is a pretty clearly disapproving look at the Bush legacy on foreign policy and tax policy.

Two fun questions to discuss here, one practical and one theoretical.
1) Is the All Saints sermon different in any meaningful way from a politically oriented sermon that doesn't happen to be given on the weekend before a Presidential election? In other words, if a right-wing mega-church telecasts Bill Frist bad-mouthing Senate Dems aboute potential filibusters, and no election is impending, is that somehow less bad?
2) What level of political behavior should we allow from churches? If the All Saints speech is impermissible, where exactly does it cross the line?

Today's LA Times has this op-ed from the guy who gave the sermon. The payoff pitch:
Some might argue that religious communities should stay out of politics altogether. But that would render our message of core moral values -- the values that Jesus taught us -- irrelevant. The fact is, all life is arguably political. For example, Jesus says to us: "Heal the sick." Thus, when we address the desperate health needs in the nation and across the planet, this is at once a moral and a political issue.The rightful role of communities of faith is not to speak and act as though God is in the pocket of the Democratic or Republican parties. Our role is to boldly proclaim the biblical themes of justice for all, peace on Earth, the sacredness of all life and the preciousness and fragility of the environment.
Good stuff.
The most obvious, and easily circumvented, boundary between acceptable and unacceptable political speech in a church would be actual endorsement of or opposition to a particular candidate. This guy took great pains to point out that he wasn't endorsing anyone, and then gave some pretty clear inferences about who he really preferred. So if the boundary is defined by saying the magic words "vote for X", then it's a pretty lame boundary. But if that's not the boundary, it's hard to see how you define one.

The idea that sermons must be free of political content (or political judgment) seems absurd to me-- and pretty hard to police equitably too. I think if you're the IRS, you have to let this go.

Postscript: You don't have to look very far into the past to see an example of the IRS making it pretty clear they want no part of adjudicating this sort of thing. This Washington Post article from November of 2004 chronicles the ultimately successful effort of a Pat Robertson-led group to get IRS approval to pray for their favorite candidate (and whoever might that be?) on the Sunday before the election.
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