Exactly how religion will ultimately play out in this 2012 presidential election cycle remains to be seen. Last time around we had the candidates in both parties clamoring to establish their religious bone fides. Pastor Rick Warren forced command nominee performances at his California megachurch where each man had to attest that he held Christ close to his heart. Warren subsequently offered a prayer at the Inauguration, but little has been seen of him in this political year. To my knowledge, there have been no Billy Grahamesque chitchats in the Oval Office.
With the President running for reelection, Republicans have had the primary season all to themselves. While religion certainly didn’t disappear — most notably in the days when Rick Santorum had his moment — it didn’t really hold center stage. That place was taken up as hopefuls focused their energy on pandering to the Teas, the force to be reckoned with post 2010. Republicans may be attacking Democrats as usual, but they often seem even more at war with themselves. That was evident in the primary states much as it has been in Washington where radical insurgents seek to gain control from the establishment. Who knows how that will play in years to come, much of it likely dependent on November’s results.
There may be another more subtle reason why religion has receded somewhat: the emergence of a Mormon as the presumptive presidential nominee, a first. The potential for getting into a Christian-Mormon conversation during the primaries was something to be avoided at all cost. No candidate wanted to go there, certainly not the former governor. You can speculate that the anybody but Romney effort reflected a possible anti-Mormon undertone, but I’d venture the candidate’s lack of color and more so his questionable conservative (as defined these days) credentials probably weighed more heavily.
Religion may have moved back a bit on the presidential campaign trail, but it certainly hasn’t disappeared from the larger political stage. In fact, as reported by Reuters, we are witnessing a dramatic increase in partisanship from pulpits. The article points to California Pastor Jim Garlow who defiantly tells his flock for whom to vote from his pulpit, consciously daring the IRS to intercede. Law prohibits churches from promoting partisan causes and doing so could mean losing their tax exemption. Garlow is not alone in thumbing his nose at political activity rules. Far more important are the actions of America’s powerful Catholic bishops led my New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan. The bishops have launched a full throat assault against President Obama (by name) and his administration in this election year.
Let’s put the tax issue in perspective. Tax exemption status afforded religious institutions costs billions of dollars in annual federal tax revenue and even more, Reuters reports, in real estate taxes lost by now cash strapped municipalities across the country. So the numbers and the stakes are high. Of course, most religious institutions and leaders don’t cross the partisan line. That makes the bishops’ blatantly partisan rhetoric especially noteworthy. It should raise a red flag as a potential violation not only of the tax exemption rules but also of church/state separation. So far the IRS is not taking the bait and that’s not altogether surprising. It’s not that they might want to step in — remember big dollars are involved — but that in some real sense they are functionally being blackmailed into inaction.
Let me explain. The argument being put forward by the bishops is that President Obama and his administration are hostile toward the Church and toward religion in general. They object to the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that insurance cover women’s health, specifically contraception. While this coverage requirement is totally waved for specifically religious institutions (churches, synagogues), it is not waved for hospitals and universities that, church-sponsored notwithstanding, serve the general public and purposes, employing, for example, non-Catholics. Many of these institutions also are recipients of public funding of one sort or another. The bishops argue their case within a framework of religious freedom painting the President as its enemy.
The most extreme statement of their position came from Illinois Bishop Daniel Jenky who disdained President Obama with his radical, pro-abortion and extreme secularist agenda. Astoundingly, in doing so he likened the President to notable villains and past church enemies including Stalin and Hitler. Secularist agenda is a popular accusation made by the partisan right (think Santorum), assumably part of an ungodly conspiracy. What worse charge can you levy against a leader in this most religious country? Despite the provocations, the IRS finds itself in an impossible no-win situation. If the agency pursues what seem to be clear violations of tax-exempt status it may well be seen, or painted, as partisan. More to the point, acting against these tax exemption violations would only confirm that the Administration has gone to war with religion. That looks like blackmail to me.
You and I do not benefit from tax-exempt status. Whatever contribution we may make to political campaigns, unlike what we give to our church or synagogue, is specifically not tax-deductible, and for good reason. If it were, our fellow citizens would in effect be financially underwriting our partisan political activity. Having personal experience in leading a religious institution and remaining a strong proponent of a free pulpit, I understand the complexities of this issue. Priests, ministers, rabbis and imams want to voice what they feel is right and consistent with their beliefs and must be able to do so. Constraining their speech would fly in the face of our constitutional right of free religious expression. At the same time, I don’t think that such free expression includes an absolute right to tax-exemption.
I’m not suggesting that we do away with that exemption — many religious institutions depend on it for their survival — but that the strings attached are appropriate, and that they should be enforced. I could not disagree more with the bishops’ position on contraception or having its cost covered by insurance. Family planning is an important women’s health issue, but also for society. Nevertheless, I think they have every right to express their view and to be governed by their own teachings so long as it doesn’t morph into partisan talk. That is, when it turns political in the specific, when they tell voters how and for whom to cast their ballots in, for example, a presidential election, there should be a cost. Simply put, as a citizen I can put up with helping to underwrite their faith-related works but don’t want to underwrite their partisan politics any more than they want to bankroll mine.
Money, the subject of an earlier post, is coming at this and all our elections from many places, not all of them obvious. It isn’t only individual contributors to PACs that are flying below the radar, so too is the abusive use of tax-free dollars under the guise of religious freedom. The first costs are more obvious and substantial of course, but the second should neither be underestimated nor discounted. Both, while perhaps for different reasons, are ultimately costs to our democracy.