Headlines today detail an impending lawsuit against a Pasadena church. The IRS is requesting documents from church leadership as they consider whether or not to revoke the church’s tax-exempt status, accusing it of engaging in lobbying activities.
All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California, has decided to not comply with an IRS investigation resulting from a sermon a guest preacher delivered in the fall of 2004. In the sermon, the preacher criticized the Bush administration regarding its Iraq policy two days before the presidential election.
The situation is sticky for several reasons. While the sermon never declared that its listeners should vote for Kerry over Bush, it was very clear that ‘Jesus would not be at war in Iraq.’ Likewise, this was a guest speaker (although he was also a former rector of the church), and not the paid staff in the local congregation. Also, California wasn’t exactly a ‘swing state’ in 2004, so criticizing Bush is like criticizing Hillary Clinton on the 700 Club.
If no action is taken, churches that lean both right and left politically could begin to spew political rhetoric more than they already do. There is also a danger that if All Saints does lose its tax-exempt status, then many more suits will be brought forth and churches will attempt to police other churches for political gain. If a precedent is set, will such investigations rage rampant? (The last such accusation and loss of status happened to a church in New York before the 1992 election.)
For me, at greater stake is the delicate line between church and state. While this line has been interpreted by countless individuals and religious groups since America’s birth, all can agree that there is a line. Some see it as more blurred, some as more rigid, some feel the line is thin, and some feel it is thick and bold. But lost in that debate is an essential question that is crucial to the survival of the church in the world: Can the church become the most effective agent for change the world has ever known?
I hope so. That’s the main reason I do what I do, trying to motivate churches to wake up to the injustices that happen the world over. The human and monetary capital the American church has in its possession is a very priceless lever. Using the right amount of energy as the force, if the right issue is set in place as the fulcrum, I feel that the boulders of apathy, prejudice and injustice can be tossed into the sea.
Should All Saints be allowed to have people speak with a political agenda clothed in religious reasoning? This sermon in question attempted to present the nonviolent Jesus of the gospels in contrast to the tactic of war used by industrialized nations today.
These are the kind of sermons I like. Any intelligent person can find fault with both political parties. And when this fault-finding mission has commenced, it only ends in voting for the lesser of two evils. But I like sermons like this because it shows me that I can do more than just vote. While that may be the beginning of my civic duty, it is not the end. I have a moral and religious obligation to see to it that the orphans are housed and the hungry are fed. I cannot simply vote for a politician who claims this as his or her agenda. I must be actively seeking justice on behalf of the world.
The fallout from this is truly yet to be seen. In the next six weeks, as elections heat up in several key states, there will be sermons, Sunday school classes and Bible studies focusing on politics, candidates and government. But I hope that the issues will not be lost.
If I were pastoring a church, I would take the unique opportunity of November to bring to light the plight of the poor, the victims of oppression, and the neglect of the disenfranchised. I would not use these issues as a leverage point in order to promote my opinions of who should represent what in Washington. I would use the issues to cultivate a gospel lifestyle – a way of life in which our living matches our beliefs. Anyone can promote this, with our without tax exemption.