Mixing Religion and Politics Can Bring the IRS Knocking

Cleveland's United Church of Christ is under investigation by the I.R.S. and could lose its tax exempt status because of a speech Barack Obama gave there last year.

But the stakes in mixing religion and politics can be steep for religious institutions, which risk their tax-exempt status if they become too partisan.

Ask the United Church of Christ. The Internal Revenue Service is investigating whether the Cleveland-based UCC engaged in political activity by sponsoring a 2007 speech by Obama on faith and politics.

Tax-exempt organizations like churches cannot participate in campaigns. [More...]

First, some background on the United Church of Christ investigation:

The United Church of Christ made it clear that Obama was not making a political speech at its General Synod in Hartford, Conn., last June.

Then Obama got up to speak and received a standing ovation when he said, "I have made a solemn pledge that I will sign a universal health-care bill into law by the end of my first term as president."

Now the IRS is investigating whether the Cleveland-based church took part in political activities that could jeopardize its tax-exempt status. It is an uncomfortable position for a church from the "mainline" Protestant tradition that includes United Methodists, Episcopalians and many Lutherans and Presbyterians. The declining but still-strong tradition includes many members who are civic and financial leaders in the region.

The churches are not monolithic in how they approach political campaigns.

On one end of the spectrum are those religious leaders who believe that the law prohibits any partisan politics in religious institutions and that even voter guides that can be interpreted as supporting one candidate over another are not permitted.

Other religious leaders believe they should take a "prophetic" role by supporting a candidate and opening their churches to rallies and meetings.

It's an interesting article that is about far more than the one investigation. It covers the participation of a variety of religious groups in recent political campaigns in Northeastern Ohio.

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  • Display: Sort:
    More interesting to me is that (5.00 / 1) (#4)
    by oculus on Sun Mar 16, 2008 at 09:45:45 PM EST
    Obama sd. he was for universal health care.  

    Hahahaha! (5.00 / 1) (#5)
    by Kathy on Sun Mar 16, 2008 at 09:46:31 PM EST
    I thought that was pretty interesting, too. He sure does know what to say to which crowd, doesn't he?

    Depends on what "universal" means. (5.00 / 2) (#6)
    by oculus on Sun Mar 16, 2008 at 09:47:23 PM EST
    More Obama Bad Judgment (5.00 / 1) (#7)
    by OxyCon on Sun Mar 16, 2008 at 09:47:44 PM EST
    You can't give a stump speech from the pulpit.

    We're supposed to vote for Obama because he has superior judgment?

    hmm... (none / 0) (#11)
    by mindfulmission on Sun Mar 16, 2008 at 10:03:21 PM EST
    ... so are we going to hear you attack the Clinton's for Bill's recent speech at Lakewood Church in Lakewood, TX?

    All Politicians speak at Churches (5.00 / 2) (#17)
    by OxyCon on Sun Mar 16, 2008 at 10:18:43 PM EST
    There is nothing wrong with this.
    But when you are running for office and you begin to give your campaign stump speech from a Church pulpit, you run afoul of the IRS.
    Now, keep in mind, there is a difference between giving a speech at Church and giving a stump speech at Church.
    Obama doesn't possess the good judgment to be able to figure out the differnece.

    What did he say? there's no law against (none / 0) (#12)
    by MarkL on Sun Mar 16, 2008 at 10:08:35 PM EST
    a Clinton speaking in a church.. yet.

    This isn't about the DOJ... (5.00 / 1) (#14)
    by DudeE on Sun Mar 16, 2008 at 10:11:23 PM EST
    ...it's about the IRS investigating the activities of these churches to determine whether or not it violates its status under the tax law.

    Churches are free to engage in campaign activities and nobody is stopping them.  But you'll no longer be able to write off your big dollar contributions to the Reverend.

    Umm... (none / 0) (#19)
    by DudeE on Sun Mar 16, 2008 at 10:31:42 PM EST
    yeah I know Co-IntelPro and all the Hoover shenanigans thank you very much...

    I still don't know what that has to do with the IRS assessing the tax status of churches.


    I wonder that mainline churches (none / 0) (#22)
    by hairspray on Mon Mar 17, 2008 at 12:19:52 AM EST
    seem to be suspect, when these Mega Churches are the ones who are so partisan.  How does that work?

    Actually, (5.00 / 1) (#28)
    by AmyinSC on Mon Mar 17, 2008 at 10:36:32 AM EST
    Some of the conservative mega churches are being investigated - and rightly so, especially the ones who preach this new message of Material and Financial Wealth.

    As an ordained minister (UU), I can tell you, it is QUITE clear what is considered political speech and what is not.  Since I come from a  liberal tradition, I was able to talk about issues of global warming, or LGBT rights, but I could NOT say, "And so, vote for Person X to make these changes."  Judging from the current videos of Rev. Wright, and what he was saying, I am not surprised at ALL that the IRS would investigate that church...

    If I may say one other thing about Obama and judgment: I can tell you, too, that to have the kind of access Obama did to such a popular minister, in such a LARGE church, as well as to consider him his spirutal mentor, means he had to have some major connections with him.  I have attended large churches in which the minister has a huge following, and getting time with the minister is difficult indeed.  Further, to have made as large a contribution as Obama did says a LOT in a church budget, no matter the size of the church.  It is simply hard to believe Obama would do so without some knowledge of the senior minister's message (and if he really IS that naive, he has NO business running for office).

    Along those lines, it is difficult to believe Obama did not really know what kind of sermons this guy preached since he already said he knew he was going to be controversial.  The services are televised, and my bet is that there are cds or tapes available (much smaller churches have them available, as well as printed copies of the sermons).  Given his close relationship with Wright, I would be surprised if Obama never listened to his sermons even when out of town.  Just sayin'.


    No Quarter (none / 0) (#1)
    by Kathy on Sun Mar 16, 2008 at 09:35:47 PM EST
    mentioned that there were Obama sign-up tables outside the conference where Obama spoke.  Not sure if it's true or not, but I think it's worth putting out here because it makes it more overtly political if it's true.

    That being said, I get very uncomfortable when churches are targeted; not because I'm religious (gave it up for Lent) but because churches have long been safe havens, whether for community meetings or as part of the Underground Railroad or what have you.

    The recently targeted super churches with Bentley driving, mansion living, greedy preachers really get my blood boiling, but given our current administration, I question any investigations the IRS starts.  Again, that being said, the line has certainly been crossed and crossed over the years, especially with Bush (my blood boils even hotter when I think that the first speech the goatf*cker gave after 9-11 was in a CHURCH) and certainly that sort of thing needs to be stopped...but I'm kind of uncomfortable when the line stops at a  potential dem candidate for the presidency.

    It's like Spitzer--yeah, he broke the law, but from what I've been reading, I am beginning to think that he was targeted for who he was rather than what he was doing.  That makes me very uneasy.  

    Remember Kerry & some Priests (none / 0) (#20)
    by BarnBabe on Sun Mar 16, 2008 at 10:48:04 PM EST
    The ones who said they would not give him communion because he was for abortion. As if they had just found that out he was ProChoice. As if they asked the question to each person at the comminion rail. They never asked me when I made the rare appearance and being a Democrat, wouldn't that make me suspect. And I figured that most Priests were raised in a home in which the family supported one party or the other. Priest can vote and thus have political opinions just as they have religious ones and some Priests and Ministers are Republican. I think the Priests should not have voiced their opinion at the pulpit and believe in a separation of church and state. Madison, right? I think the Priests could argue politics with their friends, etc., but once they stood as a leader of that church in that church, they crossed the state/church line. And although I am suspect of the IRS, I have to also think that some churches are suspect.

    persecuting the man (none / 0) (#3)
    by diogenes on Sun Mar 16, 2008 at 09:40:06 PM EST
    The IRS never did anything about the Jerry Falwell moral majority.  Something's fishy here.

    I think there is a congressional investigation (none / 0) (#8)
    by athyrio on Sun Mar 16, 2008 at 09:48:32 PM EST
    actively going on about the lavish spending of the various mega churches and many of these churches have refused to appear before the committee...Cant remember the details but I encourage congress to follow up on this....I am very very sick of these mega churches and their meddling ways....

    Grassley (R) is leading the investigations (5.00 / 2) (#9)
    by Kathy on Sun Mar 16, 2008 at 09:53:27 PM EST
    into the super churches (six total, one or two in GA and they are AWFUL)  

    Gee, where do these preacher folk get off thinking that they don't have to testify in front of the senate if they don't want to?  You'd think they were working for the White House or somethin'


    Not being (none / 0) (#10)
    by americanincanada on Sun Mar 16, 2008 at 09:55:26 PM EST
    used to stifle free speech this time.

    Churches cannot be involved in political calpaigns. You can't make political endorsements from the pulpit.

    I don't know that this could be a more clear cut violation.

    But (none / 0) (#21)
    by squeaky on Sun Mar 16, 2008 at 11:13:28 PM EST
    As always IOKIYAR

    What does IOKIYAR mean? (none / 0) (#23)
    by hairspray on Mon Mar 17, 2008 at 12:22:12 AM EST
    It's OK If You're A Republican (5.00 / 1) (#25)
    by rdandrea on Mon Mar 17, 2008 at 08:28:04 AM EST

    It's OK if you are a Republican (5.00 / 1) (#26)
    by lilybart on Mon Mar 17, 2008 at 08:29:32 AM EST
    Conservative churches are always mixing politics, but Obama's church gets investigated.

    churches and their leaders are (none / 0) (#24)
    by cpinva on Mon Mar 17, 2008 at 12:33:22 AM EST
    free to fully espouse any politician they so desire to their flock. however, by doing so, they give up the elective benefit of being granted tax exempt status under IRC 501(c). and there be the rub!

    that coveted status can be worth millions, both in actual contributions, and taxes (income, real & personal property) not paid. these foregone taxes must be made up by the rest of us. hence, the requirement that they stick to churchifyin', not politics.

    they are free to urge their parishioners to vote, period, not vote for a specific candidate. they are free to provide transportation to the polls, but not espouse a particular candidate. they are free to have politicians speak to their flock, about anything but politics.

    really, the requirement is pretty straightforward. as a rule, absent some evidence of criminal malfeasance, the FBI would have no legal standing to investigate a church's potentially violative political activities, that's strictly the purview of the IRS.

    It's about time.... (none / 0) (#27)
    by kdog on Mon Mar 17, 2008 at 10:23:21 AM EST
    all snake-oil distributors get taxed.  All charitable contribututions deductable of course.

    About comparisons in earlier thread (none / 0) (#29)
    by Cream City on Mon Mar 17, 2008 at 11:06:57 AM EST
    (which closed before I could clarify this) between the Catholic church and the Protestant churches such as this one, in the UCC.

    A crucial distinction is that Catholic priests are assigned to a parish, and that Catholics are to follow the priest's teaching from the pulpit.  

    But UCC (and many other Protestant) ministers are called by the congregation, and the congregation can fire, dismiss, etc., a minister who does not do and say what reflects the congregation's wishes.  They're not called Congregationalists for nothing.  If Obama didn't approve of the pastor's teachings, he clearly was influential and could have called for him to meet on this -- or face having another pastor called to this church.

    Or Obama could switch churches.  Catholics, on the other hand, are assigned to their geographical parish.  Some Catholics certainly switch, but they are not to do so, while Protestants find the faith and church that fits them or find another minister.