Better Luck Next Time

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Back in the fall of 2008, the conservative Christian group the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) organized “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” a sort-of civil disobedience event for which pastors were encouraged to use their pulpits to endorse John McCain and challenge IRS regulations prohibiting such political activity by tax-exempt institutions. Now, in a somewhat surprising move, the IRS has informed some of the several dozen churches that participated that they are no longer under investigation.You might think this would please those who stood to lose their tax-exempt status. Oh, no. Disappointed, the ADF has announced plans to hold another Pulpit Freedom Sunday on September 27, in the hopes of more successfully baiting the IRS.

Why would they do this? Some religious leaders have long chafed at the requirement that they abstain from political endorsements in order to maintain their tax-exempt status. (That includes liberals as well as conservatives; All Saints Episcopal in Pasadena found itself investigated by the IRS after a 2004 pre-election sermon, although in that case the church had not set out to challenge the IRS rule.) The regulation, which holds that tax-exempt organizations cannot “participate in any political campaign on behalf of any candidate for political office,” has been in place since the 1950s.

Over the years, a number of religious organizations and publications, including The Christian Century, have chosen to forfeit their tax-exempt status rather than comply with the requirement. What the ADF-inspired churches are seeking to do is something else–actively participate in political campaigns and yet continue to benefit from tax-exempt status.

They’re also, it’s fair to guess, hoping to fuel resentment among religious conservatives. Oft forgotten in the history of the Religious Right is the role an earlier IRS fight played in launching that conservative movement. In his book Thy Kingdom Come, Columbia professor Randall Balmer tells the story of how Paul Weyrich used an IRS investigation into Bob Jones University to gin up fears and resentments among religious conservatives. The IRS sought to revoke the Christian school’s tax-exempt status because the university forbade interracial dating. And while the investigation began in 1975, pre-dating Jimmy Carter’s election, Weyrich and others succeeded in placing blame on “Carter’s IRS.”

Here’s an excerpt from Balmer:

Weyrich, whose conservative activism dates at least as far back as the Barry Goldwater campaign in 1964, had been trying for years to energize evangelical voters over school prayer, abortion, or the proposed equal rights amendment to the Constitution. “I was trying to get those people interested in those issues and I utterly failed,” he recalled in an interview in the early 1990s. “What changed their mind was Jimmy Carter’s intervention against the Christian schools, trying to deny them tax-exempt status on the basis of so-called de facto segregation.”
“What caused the movement to surface,” Weyrich reiterated,”was the federal government’s moves against Christian schools.” The IRS threat against segregated schools, he said, “enraged the Christian community.”

In a letter to pastors notifying them that it is dropping the more recent investigation, the IRS has cited a “procedural problem” in going forward. It’s unclear what that might be. But it was an open secret among religious conservatives that Pulpit Freedom Sunday would provide a handy Plan B in the event of Obama’s election: If the IRS acted as expected and revoked the churches’ status, they could then declare that “Obama’s IRS” was muzzling pastors in their pulpits. For whatever reason, the administration has not given them that easy talking point just yet.