Thursday, October 19, 2006

Policing the Pulpit -- Michele Bachmann at Living Word

Posted by Craig Westover | 6:56 AM |  

I haven't posted on the Living Word Christian Center controversy, but I contributed to today's editorial in the Pioneer Press.

Policing the pulpit

We're hard pressed to figure out which cliche best describes this weekend's flap over a pastor's from-the-pulpit endorsement of 6th District congressional candidate Michele Bachmann.

The group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, CREW, has filed an Internal Revenue Service complaint against Living Word Christian Center in Brooklyn Park for "illegally promoting" Bachmann's candidacy, noting that the IRS has investigated more liberal organizations for similar situations. The group asks for fines and penalties, and revocation of Living Word's tax-exempt status. Talk about cutting off one's nose to spite one's face.

Given Bachmann's lightning-rod status it's not surprising that the week's events have focused on the partisan rather than the pertinent.
Among the pertinent: Free speech issues, concern about mixing campaigns and congregations, and concern about relying on the IRS to police "political" content in a religious context.

Ostensibly, Bachmann appeared at Living Word to speak about her faith. Believing that all things are ultimately political but recognizing the potential conflict of campaign politics and religion, we must ask, do we really need government to tell us the difference?

Bachmann was clearly preaching to the saved. However, watching video of the event, we learn some things about Bachmann's religious views that might not surface in any other forum. As a result, we know a little bit more about candidate Bachmann. Had she and the pastor interpreted the political-speech-in-church limits more conservatively (or liberally?), we might not have had that opportunity.

However, churches in American society enjoy a special tax status. Churches are a "twofer" — donations are tax deductible for the giver, and the proceeds to the church are not taxed either.

In return, churches are expected to accept limits on how they function in that intriguing gray area between religion and politics. There's a line in there somewhere. On one side of it is religion, with room for worldly affairs short of partisanship, and on the other side is plain old partisanship.

Pastor Mac Hammond crossed that line when he said he'd be voting for Bachmann, but such infractions are generally a slap-on-the-wrist offense. The very few churches that have lost their tax-exempt status have done so for far more serious violations.

Hammond has since said that he thought he was within IRS guidelines and that his endorsement was an honest mistake. The Washington D.C.-based CREW isn't buying Hammond's mea culpa.

According to The Associated Press, the organization says in its formal complaint to the IRS that it appears Living Word "illegally promoted" Bachmann's campaign.

"The IRS has pledged to investigate nonprofits that violate the law," said the organization's executive director, Melanie Sloan. "So far the IRS has targeted only progressive organizations such as the All Saints Church in Pasadena, Calif."

Sloan seems to be cutting off her nose to spite her face. Through a partisan prism, she's looking at the Living Word situation as a chance to go after a conservative church — but ignoring the larger issue: Do we really want the IRS to be the final arbiter of what is the proper content of a religious sermon?

Be careful what we wish for.

As Living Word is considered a conservative church, All Saints Church in Pasadena is regarded as a liberal congregation. What drew the attention of the IRS was an anti-war sermon given on the eve of the 2004 election. The priest did not express support for a specific candidate, but was critical of the Iraq war and the Bush tax cuts.

It doesn't take much imagination to carry that scenario forward: Would a sermon on poverty that mentioned welfare programs be considered political? How about a sermon that preached on homosexuality? Need anything be said about the sanctity of life and abortion?

Do we want clergy vetting their sermons with tax attorneys? Do we want the IRS sitting in judgment on how we pray? Are we OK with a goring as long as it's the other guy's ox?
Because society favors churches and other nonprofits with tax breaks, there are and should be limits on what goes.

But, for the sake of First Amendment freedoms, that is, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom to assemble, we should be liberal about those limits. Or conservative. Or both.

There's no two ways about it.
The point is this: it doesn't take much thinking to turn the Living Word events into a partisan issue. You could almost hear the anticipation of lefty bloggers when the event was announced -- there was no way this was going to pull off without some statement(s) that could be construed as violating IRS rules.

But inherent in the calls for sanctions against Living Word is acceptance that at even the most trivial level government generally, the IRS specifically, has the final say on what is religion and what is politics -- conservative politics or liberal politics. That is the exact opposite of separation of church and state. That violates the constitutional protection of the free exercise of religion. But as the editorial says -- that's okay if it's not your ox being gored.

A personal note -- I've also refrained from posting on the event so I could count to ten and write less angrily. Although the shallow and narrow view, there is reason to write about did or did not Pastor Hammond and Michele Bachmann step over the line in their comments. There is room to question if the ardent nature of Bachmann's beliefs negatively affect her ability to represent the 6th district. But there is no call to mock and ridicule those beliefs and by extension denigrate every other person that holds an abiding faith in God in whatever form they percieve Him. For the people that take that route, I have nothing but contempt.