Monday, January 07, 2008

Is Church Politicking Really A Problem?

-- by Sara

There's been a bit of skepticism from some quarters over whether or not my suggestion that Evangelical churches might step over IRS lines to campaign for Mike Huckabee is, or should be, a real and serious concern for progressive organizers. Is this really a problem we should worry about? Would churches really risk their non-profit status by doing something that stupid? Are there so many pastors out there who are likely to do bend the rules that it's worth our while to make some kind of monitoring effort?

The short answer to all of these questions is: Yes. If you want a long answer, read on.

Is This Really A Problem?
This is a good question, so I took it directly to Beth Corbin and Rob Boston at Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Here is Rob's response:
"Since 1996, AU has reported 73 houses of worship or religious non-profits to the IRS for partisan politicking. But if you are trying to make the case that this is a problem, it’s best to look at that the IRS says. The IRS has announced special policy initiatives to crack down on politicking by religious non-profits, and the agency has repeatedly warned religious leaders about the law. I doubt the IRS would be devoting resources to this matter if it were a total non-problem."
Rob pointed us to a 2006 IRS report that describes just how prevalent this has become in recent election years. The report's executive summary notes that the IRS tracked a significant increase in "the number and variety of allegations of such behavior by section 501(c)3 organizations during election cycles" between the 2000 and 2004 elections; and that "the potential for charities, including churches, being used as arms of political campaigns and parties will erode the public's confidence in these institutions." The report notes that actually enforcing the tax law can be a tricky business:
-- The activities that give rise to questions of political campaign intervention also raise legitimate concerns regarding freedom of speech and religious expression;

-- The Code contains no bright line test for evaluating political intervention; it requires careful balancing of all of the facts and circumstances;

-- The questionable activities are public and occur within the compressed period of time of the election cycle. Keeping in mind that there are over one million 501(c)(3) organizations, media reports on the activities of a small representation of those organizations can, rightly or wrongly, create an impression of widespread noncompliance; and

-- The activities that must be evaluated for potential campaign intervention can be difficult to document, because they often involve events and statements that may not be recorded or otherwise captured.
So the IRS is looking for a "pattern of behavior" that occurs "within the compressed period of time of the election cycle" -- which suggests that a well-executed monitoring strategy could indeed yield exactly the kind of information the agency needs to make its case. And it's pretty clear here that, in the absence of a bright line, good monitors can make a worthy case out of many kinds of evidence. One egregious act is actionable; but the IRS defines the rules broadly enough to also be interested in a pattern of recurring behavior that continually flirts with the legal lines.

Does the IRS Even Care?
The IRS has been so concerned about this that, since 2004, it has stepped up its efforts to educate 501(c)3 groups (which include not only churches, but all kinds of non-profits) about the limits of the law, and the consequences of breaking it. At the same time, it launched a new initiative to "respond in a faster, targeted fashion to specific credible allegations of political campaign intervention." Over the next two years, this fast-track process led the IRS to complete field investigations of 132 new and existing complaints. Among the violations "alleged and determined," they found (again, quoting from the report summary):
-- Charities, including churches, distributing diverse printed materials that encouraged their members to vote for a preferred candidate (24 alleged; 9 determined),

-- Religious leaders using the pulpit to endorse or oppose a particular candidate (19 alleged; 12 determined),

-- Charities, including churches, criticizing or supporting a candidate on their website or through links to another website (15 alleged; 7 determined),

-- Charities, including churches, disseminating improper voter guides or candidate ratings (14 alleged; 4 determined),

-- Charities, including churches, placing signs on their property that show they support a particular candidate (12 alleged; 9 determined),

-- Charities, including churches, giving improperly preferential treatment to certain candidates by permitting them to speak at functions (11 alleged; 9 determined), and

-- Charities, including churches, making cash contributions to a candidate’s political campaign (7 alleged; 5 determined).
Furthermore: "The IRS found that nearly three quarters of the organizations examined under the initiative had engaged in prohibited political activities. As a result, the Service will continue the initiative for future election periods, and as noted above, will focus on both education and enforcement."

So: Is the IRS interested in this issue? Yes. Do they investigate: Often, and quickly. Is this a fair use of our resources? As I said: if we only get a few, it'll give us a critical opening to make a far-reaching critique of the arrogance and anti-social behavior of the Religious Right, which in turn will do much to erode what's left of their credibility and moral authority with the public.

Why Target the Southern Baptists?
Some have questioned my suggestion that if local progressives with limited resources need to do some triage, they should start by aiming their monitoring efforts at their neighborhood Southern Baptists. This recommendation was based mainly on their previous record: the SBC is the second-largest Christian denomination in the country after the Roman Catholic Church; yet they have demonstrated, over and over, a blithe willingness to break the law and abridge the civil rights of people they don't like. It would be brain-dead of us to expect that's going to be any better this year than it's been in the past, no matter who the GOP nominee is. And if it's Huckabee, the odds are overwhelming that will get much worse.

I've written extensively about the sense of smug superiority that's settled into the SBC over the past few years, much of it drawn from an essential belief that their special relationship with God not only makes them morally superior to the rest of us, but also exempts them from the need to observe the law. Beyond that: they're openly committed to tearing down the rule of law entirely and replacing it with a theocracy -- and have taken the leading role in the effort to put judges onto the bench who will enforce their Biblical order in the meantime.

The belief that our democratic government is illegitimate, coupled with the arrogance of the twice-born, has already led them into all kinds of serious legal trouble. A brief recap of posts that Dave and I have done in just the past year demonstrates this more than adequately. The church is currently embroiled in a year-long scandal -- to which it has made no effective policy response whatsoever -- involving over 50 ministers arrested (and many convicted) on charges of sexually abusing children in their congregations. They have also allied themselves with hate groups promoting anti-gay violence (including one that's been implicated in at least one murder). One of the SBC's national leaders has gone on record defending torture as scriptural; another lost his military chaplaincy when it was discovered he was keeping a sex slave. His fellow SBC pastors knew -- but they looked the other way.

And, of course, there's the fact that the church's national leadership has already proven itself -- twice over -- more than happy to break the law specifically so it could endorse Huckabee. And this happened long before Huck had a ghost of a chance in a primary. Since Huckabee is himself an SBC minister, it's not out of line to presume that the church will be uniquely aggressive (and, perhaps, characteristically lawless) in campaigning for one of its own. This is the shot they've been waiting for -- and they've got every incentive not to let a little thing like the IRS stand in the way.

Should We Do This?
Henry Brighouse, writing over at Crooked Timber this morning, noted that it would be irresponsible not to speculate on the potential for Huckabee to rely on churches for his ground game:
...Huckabee doesn’t have any sort of real organization. His decisive win in Iowa demonstrates that he doesn’t need one, at least in states that have a strong evangelical movement. He can rely on the pastors getting out the vote for him. This is one that I’m pretty convinced of – he’s demonstrated that much of the conventional wisdom on the need for organization was wrong. Think of this as the evangelical’s revenge on mainstream Republicans. Much of Karl Rove’s success in 2004 depended on using below-the-radar forms of organization in churches etc to get the vote out. This has created an infrastructure that Huckabee seems to be taking over in the absence of any other real evangelical candidate.
Brighouse is remembering exactly what the IRS reported that it saw: the GOP has become more aggressive in using churches as local organizing headquarters for its candidates -- a development that gives them all kinds of resource and community networking advantages over the Democrats. Over the course of the last two elections, this invisible network has become essential to their operations. Dismantling it is a) ridiculously easy to do; b) absurdly cheap; and c) a way to give a dramatic boost our own local efforts in every precinct in the country. Our folks on the ground shouldn't have to contend with a well-organized foot brigade that's being illegally coordinated through churches. We can put a quick, cheap stop to it -- and if we want to win, we will.

But there's a larger goal at stake here, too. As the IRS report summary notes, it wouldn't take too many of these cases to make a PR point that could shift people's entire view of the Religious Right. A growing number of Americans already have a low opinion of fundamentalist churches. Many of them were badly spooked by the Schiavo incident, which they recognized as a gross overreach by both church and state powers; but that was two years ago now, and memories have begun to fade.

A brief burst -- or continuous trickle -- of well-publicized cases featuring right-wing churches flouting the IRS (during an election year, no less!) will bring all of this back into sharp focus for the voters by refreshing their memories of the overweening arrogance we've been seeing from the fundamentalist right all along. Furthermore, if progressives are serious about neutralizing the religious right as a political force over the long term, branding them as habitual criminals in the minds of average Americans is one potent way to do it. You don't have to be liberal to despise a tax cheat.

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