The Los Angeles Times recently reported that "the Internal Revenue Service ordered a liberal Pasadena parish to turn over all the documents and e-mails it produced during the 2004 election year with references to political candidates.
"All Saints Episcopal Church and its rector, the Rev. Ed Bacon, have until Sept. 29 to present the sermons, newsletters and electronic communications.
"The IRS investigation was triggered by an antiwar sermon delivered by its former rector, the Rev. George F. Regas, at the church two days before the 2004 presidential election. The summons even requests utility bills to establish costs associated with hosting Regas' speech. Bacon was ordered to testify before IRS officials Oct. 11."
That Rev. Regas and All Saints Episcopal represent a liberal point of view must not cloud the fact that what is at stake here is religious liberty. From the very beginning of our constitutional republic, America's pastors and ministers have courageously engaged the culture. We must not allow the IRS, or any other government agency, to now trample this heritage.
Can one imagine the potential outcome for religious freedom should the IRS be allowed to stifle religious dissent? Think of the voter registration drives, the get-out-the-vote campaigns, and public forums that take place in America's churches.
Beyond that, there is not a local, state, or federal election that takes place that ministers of every stripe and color do not boldly express their convictions and provide spiritual consideration on salient issues that will be directly affected by those elections. Black, White, Hispanic, Asian, liberal, conservative, moderate, Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish: they all freely voice their concerns. I say, more power to them!
Yet, there is an even bigger issue here. Not only do ministers have a fundamental right under our Constitution to speak freely regarding their agreements or disagreements with "the powers that be," they also have a moral and Biblical mandate to do so.
I'm sure the IRS would accuse John the Baptist of "getting into politics" when he denounced King Herod's adultery. However, not only did John keep preaching, but the Lord Jesus commended John, saying there was none greater than he ever born.
The truth is, it is virtually impossible for a minister to faithfully preach the Scriptures without dealing with current events, including those that bleed over into politics. For example, the Bible condemned abortion a long time before it became a football in American politics. Therefore, to be faithful to Scripture, preachers must deal with the abortion issue.
What about homosexuality, adultery, greed, falsehood, thievery, etc.? When those issues become political or impact political candidates and office holders, must preachers remove themselves from the debate? Perish the thought.
Preachers form America's collective conscience and provide a collective moral authority for those in and out of politics. To demand that preachers be silent on political issues would be to throw America into a moral and spiritual vacuum from which there would be no return.
However, under President George W. Bush, the IRS has become extremely aggressive in using acts of intimidation against churches and other organizations. During the past two years alone, using its new enforcement program, the Political Activity Compliance Initiative, the IRS has investigated more than 200 organizations nationwide, including 40 churches.
The IRS attack against All Saints Episcopal has occurred even though Rev. Regas' sermon "did not endorse or oppose any of the candidates, [but] addressed the moral and religious implications of various social issues facing the nation at the time." Good grief! There is hardly a pastor in the country that has not done the same thing. Will all of us pastors and our churches be the next targets of the IRS?
I doubt that I have much in common with the Rev. Bob Edgar, an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and general secretary of the National Council of Churches USA, but I whole-heartedly agree with him when he said, "I'm outraged. Preachers ought to have the liberty to speak truth to power." Amen!
If this were the Clinton administration's IRS threatening a conservative evangelical church, the Religious Right would be screaming to the heavens. Yet, the Religious Right needs to look beyond the liberalism of the Rev. Regas and All Saints Episcopal and come quickly and vehemently to their defense, realizing that religious liberty either applies to us all or it applies to none of us at all. As someone once said so well, "I may not agree with what you say, but I'll fight to the death for your right to say it."
The American political system is not threatened by Rev. Regas, but religious liberty is most assuredly being threatened by the Internal Revenue Service. The Religious Right, especially, needs to realize that fact.
© Chuck Baldwin
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