Sunday, April 30, 2006

Ohio churches' politics: Give me that old time religion

In another subtle yet clear example of the current administration's agenda, we have the IRS selectively ignoring 2 Ohio churches' (World Harvest Church and Fairfield Christian Church) violations of their tax-exempt status:
In a challenge to the ethics of conservative Ohio religious leaders and the fairness of the Internal Revenue Service, a group of 56 clergy members contends that two churches have gone too far in supporting a Republican candidate for governor.

Two complaints filed with the tax agency say that the large Columbus area churches, active in President Bush's narrow Ohio win in 2004, violated their tax-exempt status by pushing the candidacy of J. Kenneth Blackwell, who is the secretary of state and the favored candidate of Ohio's religious right.

The clergy members said the churches improperly held political activities and allowed Republican organizations to use their facilities.

. . .

When three months passed without public evidence that the IRS had acted on a January complaint, the clergy members filed a second document, expanding the allegations.

"You have flagrant intervention continuing and no indication of IRS activity," said Marcus Owens, a lawyer for the group and former director of the IRS office that regulates tax-exempt organizations. He considers the evidence of wrongdoing "pretty overwhelming" and suspects favoritism, which tax agency officials deny.

When I lived south of Los Angeles in Orange County, two of my biggest clients were very large evangelical churches with Christian music recording studios. I actually became friends with some of the folks at these places, and found one in particular to be pretty open and accepting. But the other was particularly interesting.

During the '88 campaign, I hear parishoners talk about Dukakis' writing legislation while Governor of Massachusetts to allow human-animal sexual activity. I heard statements from the pulpit that "We all know who we're voting for, don't we?"

I heard a Latino sound engineer express the wish that his mother would 'get saved.' When I asked him if Mom was Catholic, and attended church regularly, he said yes, but that he didn't consider her a real Christian because she wasn't 'born again.'

While these seem like minor issues, they are emblematic of an attitude that drives a large segment of the religious right, that their personal brand of Christianity ought to be the moral and legislative law of the country. And they remain blind to the irony of their Taliban-esque fantasies. They believe that when moral absolutists from other faith traditions promote a similar viewpoint they are wrong, and in some cases evil, as in the case of radical Islamists calling for Sharia law in Muslim countries.

Of course, the IRS takes a different viewpoint when the church criticises the administration:
In Pasadena, Calif., the IRS is examining the tax-exempt status of All Saints Church because its former pastor delivered a sermon that criticized Bush on the Iraq war and Republican conservatives on social policy two days before the 2004 election.

The NAACP recently said it would challenge in court an IRS threat to revoke its tax-exempt status. The case centers on a 2004 speech critical of Bush administration policies by Chairman Julian Bond. The group's president, Bruce S. Gordon, said he was concerned that the IRS audit "was motivated by politics."

As one of the signatories of the complaint notes:
"That's what our ancestors were trying to prevent, having too close a relationship between a government or a government official and a particular religious group so that the government policy and the activities of a particular religious group become intermingled," said Rabbi Harold J. Berman, who signed the complaints.

Too many people see religion as the only arbiter of morality, and feel their own religious beliefs trump any others. The problematic church noted above has a statement on the back of their Sunday programs that says:
We are not a denominational church, nor are we opposed to denominations as such, only their over-emphasis of doctrinal differences that have led to the division of the body of Christ.

Yet I can't remember how many time I heard said or saw in print while working there that "Mormons are cultists," or "Catholics haven't been born again" or "Jews are going to Hell." They really seem to believe that they, along with a few other fundamentalists, are the One True Church, no matter what the bulletin says.

This is what the founders were concerned with, as the Rabbi notes above. And they came to the conclusion, written in the 1st Amendment, that:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion

Of course, religion isn't at all necessary for morality. Thane Rosenbaum, in The Myth of Moral Justice, says:

Law and religion. Judges and clergy. Verdicts and absolutions. Blind faith and blind justice.

For most people, there is a belief that the values and teachings that are embodied in both law and religion -- the consciousness and ideals that are invoked in cathedrals and courthouses -- are basically the same, that they go hand in hand. In practice, however, they are connected by left feet. Law and religion are, in fact, largely and unfortunately not inspired by the same values, although most of us wish to believe otherwise.

We assume that an exalted sense of rightness, and knowing the proper standards for engaging in the world and dealing with our fellow human beings, is what clergy and judges have in common. But men of the cloth and men who sit on judicial benches see the world quite differently from one another. And it's not merely their elevated pedestals that make it so. Let us not be fooled by the robes: priests, rabbis, ministers, imams, and jurists may dress the same, but they are not the same. Uniforms can be deceiving; the mirage of uniformity -- despite the fact that judges wear black robes and clergy are sometimes dressed in white -- may be more of a caveat than sartorial coincidence. And yes, courts and churches are decorated with similar props and vestments. But, once more, the similarity here is only one of interior design. The decor is intended to elicit a particular emotion, an aura that isn't always deserved, but does command respect.

A Catholic priest friend of Pams' once said that fundamentalism is an immature expression of religious faith, for people who need structure provided for their lives. That structure comes from the church, not the Constitution, which denies the kind of America the folks in Ohio seem to want to create.

The final question to any debate about religious-based law is always "Whose religion? Who gets to pick?"

My answer: The Constitution is for everyone, religion is for anyone.

1 comment:

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