If the New York Times and NPR have their way, Christians may soon long for the days of hungry lions and syphilitic Roman emperors. The Scylla and Charybdis of respectable opinion have all but begged the Internal Revenue Service to open up a large-scale investigation of all churches that take stands on moral issues which bleed over into political action, or allow members of their congregation to register voters. Well, the conservative ones anyway.
The other week the Times reported on a mass e-mail from President George W. Bush's re-election campaign asking conservative Christians to recruit more conservative Christians within their congregations. The Times quotes Trevor Potter, former chair of the Federal Election Commission:
"If the church is doing it, it is a legal problem for the church. In the past, the I.R.S. has sought to revoke and has succeeded in revoking the tax-exempt status of churches for political activity...The I.R.S. would ask, did the church encourage this? Did the church permit this but not other literature? Did the church in any way support this?"
Of course, the Bush campaign didn't ask the churches to do anything. It asked members of conservative congregations to recruit more supporters through existing network of like-minded Americans. That little distinction, which makes all the legal difference in the world, was removed by sleight of hand by the Times writer.
NPR was even more deceptive in its reporting on the Southern Baptist Convention's iVoteValues voter registration drive in late May. Reporter Barbara Bradley Hagerty ran a story on NPR's flagship snorefest All Things Considered in which she said the SBC encourages worshippers to "register Republican."
The information was provided to her by the Rev. Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State and was thereby, almost by definition, false or exaggerated. So NPR ran a three-second correction on June 9. With the correction there really wasn't a story at all, but since when did NPR let that get in the way of a chance to stick it to its political opponents?
It isn't clear that either news outlet would have much to get worked up about, in any event. Last I checked, the U.S. still has freedom of religion and the right to assemble. According to the U.S. Supreme Court's 1970 decision upholding the tax-exemption of churches (Walz v. New York):
Few concepts are more deeply embedded in the fabric of our national life, beginning with pre-Revolutionary colonial times, than for the government to exercise at the very least this kind of benevolent neutrality toward churches and religious exercise.
Further, there are dozens of good reasons why churches deserve tax exemption. The three most compelling, in my mind, are:
1) Many churches provide a number of charitable services, from soup kitchens to drug and alcohol counseling. To grant tax exemption only to secular charities and non-profits would discriminate against religious institutions.
2) Tax exemption protects churches from excessive intrusion by the government, something that clearly concerned the Founders when they drafted the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
3) Churches are not taxed because our laws recognize the existence of God. The Founders believed no lesser entity could tax a greater entity. With all respect to the New York Times and NPR, we still live in a country where the state does not supersede its Creator.
Be all that as it may, according to the Christian Law Association, churches in America have combined assets totaling somewhere around $331.6 billion. The way many secular liberals see it, some of that money could be sitting in federal, state and local coffers, fueling all kinds of glorious programs.
And, to be sure, there's something much more insidious at work here than just liberal, big government ideology: pure partisan politics. Increasing numbers, Americans of faith are voting Republican.
According to the University of Akron's National Survey of Religion and Politics, if you are a Catholic or an Evangelical Christian who attends church at least once a week, you're twice as likely to vote Republican as Democrat. Ergo, any voter registration drives or issues campaigns by these churches must be helping Republican candidates. Ergo, churches are engaged in partisan political activity and their tax-exemption must be revoked.
Yes, the logic is tortured and contemptible. But the Left has won a few battles in the culture war with flimsier ammunition.
Meanwhile, very real tax-exempt scandals are beginning to bubble on the left. A spate of e-mails in and out of the Heinz Family Philanthropies indicates many of the charity's employees may be helping the Kerry campaign. And the Washington Post has reported erstwhile consumer advocate Ralph Nader has been ignoring the plight of the government's consumers by running his presidential campaign out of his tax-exempt charity.
No word yet on whether the New York Times and NPR are as hot-and-bothered by these violations as they are with the civic mindedness of pious Christians.