THE IRS SHOULD DISENFRANCHISE CHURCHES that comply with the Republican National Committee’s requests to turn over parish rosters and contact information. The blurring of the lines between the religious and the secular didn’t start with the Bush administration, but they have certainly taken this to new heights of sophistication and systemization.
To be fair in my criticism, Bill Clinton has always been comfortable at the pulpit and used churches not only in his own political campaigns but actually endorsed the failing recall efforts of then California Governor Gray Davis from a church lectern. I think Clinton’s use of churches was inappropriate, but many friends and associates of mine completely disagree with me and argue that Democrats need to become more comfortable with faith and the mix of politics and religion. For some persuasive commentary on this subject, see Amy Sullivan’s “Do the Democrats Have a Prayer?” in the Washington Monthly.
But today, Melissa Rogers set it all straight in a terrific article that ran in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, “When Faith and Politics Meet.” Rogers is former director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and is a visiting professor of religion and public policy at Wake Forest University Divinity School in Winston-Salem. She also happens to be married to one of Washington’s smartest tax policy guys, with whom I had the pleasure of working when I was in the Senate. I’m not sure, but my hunch is that Rogers is devout about being a Democrat and a regular Christian church-goer.
In her article she writes:
As has been widely reported, the campaign to re-elect President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney has produced materials informing “coalition coordinators” that one of their “duties” is: “Send your Church Directory to your State Bush-Cheney 04 Headquarters or give to a BC04 Field Rep.” The Associated Press recently reported that “the Republican National Committee confirmed it had asked Catholics who back Bush to give parish directories to the RNC as a way to identify and mobilize new voters.”
There are some legitimate ways for political campaigns to try to reach religious people. Soliciting directories isn’t one of them. Churches and other organizations that are tax-exempt under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code are prohibited from participating in any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.
What would be surprising and disappointing, however, is if church members were to follow these instructions rather than heeding ethical and religious teachings. After all, the most important reason for refusing to give our church directories to political campaigns is found in the Bible. Jesus said: “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” The church is a not a creature of the state or of any earthly power — it is a creature of God. Before and beyond November 2004, may people of faith reject every entreaty that asks us to give to Caesar that which belongs to God.
The exact wording of the IRS 501(c)(3) exemption statement is unambiguous. It reads:
To be tax-exempt as an organization described in IRC Section 501(c)(3) of the Code, an organization must be organized and operated exclusively for one or more of the purposes set forth in IRC Section 501(c)(3) and none of the earnings of the organization may inure to any private shareholder or individual. In addition, it may not attempt to influence legislation as a substantial part of its activities and it may not participate at all in campaign activity for or against political candidates.
The Republican National Committee has responded that it is requesting parishioner guides for non-partisan, voter registration efforts. But this “strains credulity” as Melissa Rogers writes — and only adds another dimension to the corruption of American civil society which we have seen manifested in major newspapers, blue chip corporations, the New York Stock exchange, the Catholic Church, both political parties, and so on.
The RNC may be in legal bounds to ask churches for parish rosters, but the churches need to know that the Internal Revenue Service forbids this. Read the law carefully. And frankly, despite the trend among some of my Democrat friends encouraging greater capacity building in the party with religious circles, I’m all for keeping the lines of faith and the secular order as divided as possible, particularly when it’s no longer clear that some Christian sects influencing this White House believe in the Enlightenment.
Christians who can handle faith and rationality at the same time encourage me — but those who subordinate rationality to faith, as some in this administration seem to advocate are undermining the fabric of the country at large.
— Steve Clemons