Special Report

An Open Letter to Barack Obama

Stiffing our church for an IRS investigation and a six figure legal bill.

By 3.3.08

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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.

As you know, on June 23, 2007, you gave a speech to the United Church of Christ's General Synod during our church's 50th anniversary celebration in Hartford, Connecticut. The invitation was extended well before you became a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. You are one of us, and while I disagree with you politically and could not be in Hartford, certainly I initially thought the idea of inviting you to speak was a good one. Contrary to the image our denominational leaders seek to promote, all members of our church are not liberals, and certainly I am not. Yet as a conservative I believe the exchange of ideas is what America is all about.

Everything changed with your formal announcement that you were running for president. Instantly your potential appearance posed a problem for the UCC, as the IRS has quite specific rules regulating the appearance of political candidates campaigning in front of church audiences. The rules are the result of an amendment to the tax code in 1954 by then-Senator from Texas Lyndon B. Johnson, the Democratic leader of the Senate. This law was, per Jill "J.R." Labbe, the deputy editorial page editor of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, payback against "two non-profits in Texas that were actively campaigning against" LBJ's re-election to the Senate. At the instigation of the UCC's own Reverend Barry Lynn, the head of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, various Christian conservatives have been penalized financially by the IRS for crossing over this line laid down by the Johnson law, most notably the late Reverend Jerry Falwell. While it is troubling that neither you nor the UCC expressed the slightest concern when a conservative's freedom of speech was being repressed, this episode inadvertently opens a chance for everyone to come together on the basic issue of freedom of expression by supporting a repeal of the LBJ law, a law that clearly is about nothing more than intimidating people of faith into silence.

Be that as it may, the LBJ law is in place. It is the law, and the IRS must enforce the rules, taking the same approach to the UCC that the UCC's own Reverend Lynn insisted be taken with Jerry Falwell and other conservatives. The moment your status as a candidate changed, both you and the UCC had two options. One, you could have gracefully refused the invitation, citing the Johnson law and your candidacy. Or the church could simply have withdrawn the invitation to you on the same grounds. Two, the church could have easily complied with the IRS rules under the Johnson law by simply inviting your competitors for the Democratic nomination. Yes, you would have been sharing the spotlight, but under the circumstances that shouldn't have been too much to ask of you.

In the event, neither of these options -- withdrawal or inviting other candidates -- was taken. And so you went to Hartford. Almost immediately you violated IRS rules, discussing your presidential candidacy from what, under the circumstances, meets the legal definition of a pulpit. Addressing some 10,000 of our religious brethren you said:

"It's been several months now since I announced I was running for president. In that time, I've had the chance to talk with Americans all across this country. And I've found that no matter where I am, or who I'm talking to, there's a common theme that emerges. It's that folks are hungry for change -- they're hungry for something new. They're ready to turn the page on the old politics and the old policies -- whether it's the war in Iraq or the health care crisis we're in, or a school system that's leaving too many kids behind despite the slogans."

Further on, you said this:
"I have made a solemn pledge that I will sign a universal health care bill into law by the end of my first term as president that will cover every American and cut the cost of a typical family's premiums by up to $2,500 a year."

The statement on health care is what's known in the trade as a campaign promise, and you made it from a UCC pulpit.

Senator, your campaign has now released a statement saying that you had only spoken about your "personal spiritual journey" at the UCC General Synod that day and were not campaigning for president. This is just not true. As if the exact quotes from your speech cited above do not show this to be considerably less than truthful, this decidedly was not what your campaign was saying before you delivered your speech. Quite specifically, the UCC website quoted your campaign officials as follows:

Joshua DuBois, the Obama campaign's director of religious affairs, said the senator's Synod speech on Saturday will be his first major address on faith and politics as a presidential candidate. The address, DuBois said, will combine personal details about Obama's religious experiences with prescriptions for how religious Americans might put their faith into action. It will also focus on "the growing movement of people of faith" from a variety of traditions, "coming together around our connections as a people and using those connections to address our common challenges," DuBois said.

Shaun Casey, an adviser to the Obama campaign and a professor of ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., said he expects the address to be "as detailed an account of how a person's faith shapes his policies as I have seen from any presidential candidate."


The UCC, filled to the brim with obliging liberal staffers, took its cue and obediently headed this announcement on its website of your impending appearance thusly: "Obama's Synod speech will be his 'first major address on faith and politics as presidential candidate.'"

UNSURPRISINGLY, ALL OF THIS resulted in a complaint being filed with the IRS following your presentation. In addition to your speech and the stories featured by the UCC's own website, the complaint cites numerous media accounts describing your appearance as a campaign event. This is bolstered by photographs of volunteers manning Obama campaign tables at the entrance to the Civic Center, volunteers who were then ushered inside for the oldest of campaign rituals -- a photo op with the candidate.

As a direct result of your actions, this last week the UCC -- our mutual denomination -- has now been notified officially by the IRS that it is under investigation.

Our national church suddenly stands in danger of losing its tax exempt status -- because of you. Do you have any idea what losing our tax-exempt status could mean to a church like mine here in Pennsylvania if in fact we are tagged financially for federal, state and local taxes? I'll tell you: this means choices about paying the heat bill versus the tax bill, paying the light bill versus the tax bill, paying for any number of church activities targeted at needy community or church members versus the tax bill and so on. Even more to the point, the president of the UCC, the Reverend John Thomas, has been abruptly forced to appeal to all of the UCC's members for urgent financial help because of what you have done, informing us that "we will need to secure expert legal counsel, and the cost of this defense, we are told, could approach or exceed six figures."

Exceeding six figures, of course, means we're talking over a million dollars. A million dollars to cover for your personal mistake. Of which the UCC has so far managed to raise a paltry $43,847.37 in a special "UCC Legal Fund" as this is written.

You make much about America's presumed inability to sustain the financial costs of the Iraq War. There is no way, by the admission of Reverend Thomas himself, that the United Church of Christ can sustain the financial costs of your decision to pitch your presidential campaign to the General Synod in violation of the LBJ law without doing serious damage to the most vulnerable in our society. Way down here on the bottom, if my church has to come up with the bucks to pay taxes as well as meet our basic obligations -- well, sorry. No can do. You have put the life of every small and struggling UCC church in America -- and perhaps some well-to-do ones as well -- in danger. This at a time when UCC churches such as the Old First Church in Springfield, Massachusetts, founded in 1637, and St. Paul's in Summit Hill, Pennsylvania are forced to close their doors, in part because they simply can't afford the costs of keeping their doors open.

If members do not give to this newly-established-for-the-purpose "UCC Legal Fund," the Reverend Thomas warns us darkly, there will also be an "impact" on the national church's office of Our Church's Wider Mission. Impact? What kind of impact? OCWM, as you well know, is the division of our church that is charged with support of missionaries, disaster preparedness, ministries to the disabled, scholarships and grants, child sponsorship and refugee resettlement, to name but a few of its functions.

The "impact" that Reverend Thomas is warning about is very easy to understand. Because of your decision to proceed with your appearance at the General Synod, on top of the effect on churches like mine, funds dedicated to the likes of missionaries, the disabled and children will have to be cut unless the rest of us pony-up to pay a six-to-seven figure legal bill to deal with this IRS investigation.

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. As someone who has worked for a president myself, I certainly knew this and said so in print at the time. This wasn't -- and isn't -- rocket science. Many others understood the fact that your appearance could attract unfavorable attention from the IRS, discussing this on the website UCC Truths, a site dedicated to seeing that dissenting UCC members have a voice in our church.

The UCC, by the way, maintains a list of almost 30 UCC-related websites on its UCC funded UCC News "Blog Roll." Interestingly, the UCC administrator has barred UCC Truths from this Blog Roll, a blatant contradiction of the UCC's indignant cries about freedom of speech. Did I mention that this administrator, an ordained UCC minister, has acknowledged that he is an Obama campaign worker? Specifically a writer for the People of Faith for Barack? Which means that the UCC is apparently allowing someone officially connected with your campaign to use his position as the church's official blog administrator for UCC News to keep a church-related website critical of you off the church's Blog Roll. Quite aside from being the very image of a conflict-of-interest and raising issues of censorship and a lack of diversity, this is what comes under the rubric of an "in-kind contribution" from the UCC to your campaign. Again. What does it take for everyone concerned to understand that the IRS is investigating precisely this kind of linkage between your campaign and the UCC?

THE FACT THAT YOU WENT AHEAD with your Hartford appearance says one of two things: you didn't know this most basic fact of IRS procedure under the LBJ law that a great many other people knew, something astonishing for a one-time president of the Harvard Law Review (not to mention a sitting U.S. Senator) or, more troubling if true, that you did in fact know but decided to simply appear anyway, consequences to the needy recipients of OCWM's charities and churches like mine be damned. If the first is correct, at a minimum it hints at an unsettling lack of intellectual curiosity that has directly resulted in serious consequences for our church. If the second is true it gives the disturbing illustration of a chilling arrogance of power and callousness towards both those dependent on OCWM's good works as well as struggling UCC churches everywhere, both on your part and, yes, on the part of our church leadership.

Certainly the UCC's leadership, beginning with the Reverend Thomas himself, also bears a considerable portion of the blame for this turn of events. It boggles the mind that a national leader of this very old and very treasured institution of faith that traces its roots to the earliest beginnings of America would so cavalierly risk its mission, finances, local churches and above all our reputation simply to indulge his personal passion for the extremism of far-left wing politics. Yet this is precisely what has been done. The fact that a member of your campaign staff serves as the church's official blog administrator and is keeping a UCC-related site critical of you off its Blog Roll underscores a stunning inability by both church officials and your campaign to realize the seriousness of an IRS investigation for our church even now.

Be that as it may, we are where we are. While I am in fact both a member of my local church Council, and serve as president of the Council, I must emphasize I am speaking here only as an individual member of the UCC. So let me put this as plainly as I can.

I, for one, have no intention whatsoever of contributing a dime to raising a six-to seven figure legal fund to pay either for your appalling lack of judgment or the scandalous lack of common sense that was shown by Reverend Thomas and the national leadership of our church.

With respect Senator, there is one central question here: What are you going to do about this?

Will you personally raise the money the UCC now needs to pay for your mistake? Will you show the leadership you insist you can provide the country by stepping up and taking responsibility in a situation for which you, personally, bear considerable responsibility? Will you find a way to ensure that the members of the United Church of Christ do not have to divert funds specifically designated for the poor, disadvantaged and needy to pay high-priced lawyers in an investigation by the government that should never have been needed in the first place? An investigation set in motion because over five decades ago one of the preeminent leaders of your party had a felt need to repress free speech by sticking it to some political enemies in Texas? Finally, will you support repeal of the LBJ law and restore the rights of free speech to all churches -- liberal or conservative?

The speech you gave that day in June was titled "The Politics of Conscience." Several times in the course of your talk you told our fellow church members that "our conscience cannot rest" until various public policy concerns -- the war in Iraq, health care and others -- were met.

I would suggest that there should be a considerable problem of conscience for a presidential candidate who helps himself to a banquet of votes by using his own denomination -- in a manner the IRS feels worthy of investigation -- and then sticks his co-religionists with both the legal consequences and the check. If in fact your conscience rests over this episode, then the American people have just learned something startling about you, something that is as unattractive as it is dangerous in a potential president.

If this is not the case, if in fact you are willing to step up to the plate and be the leader your supporters insist you to be, then -well -- way to go. Good luck raising the money and I certainly hope you repeal the Johnson law. While I won't be voting for you -- those pesky philosophical differences -- I will be the first to applaud your leadership on these issues.

In fact, I will be happy to invite you to attend my UCC church while you are campaigning in the Pennsylvania primary. Doubtless there are Obama supporters in our small congregation and even those who may disagree with you who would surely give you a warm UCC welcome.

On another occasion, the revelation of a real estate deal in which you were involved inappropriately by your own admission, you said that you made a "boneheaded mistake." Your words, not mine. Surely you cannot seriously think that what you've done with the UCC so far does not qualify as, well, another "boneheaded mistake." May I make a professional suggestion? If these kinds of incidents repeat themselves, you have suggested for yourself a nickname your opponents will seize with gusto. It will require considerable amounts of church attendance on your part to pray for forgiveness -- both of yourself for giving them the tip, and for those who may substitute the word for this dopey business of using your middle name.

Thanks for your time. I sincerely hope you can get moving on this. And if you do decide to pop into our church some Sunday morning, there would be only one request.

Don't say anything.

Sincerely,
Jeffrey Lord

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.