Yep, that was George Regas in that photo — the man in the purple ecclesiastical robe and handcuffs. The rector emeritus of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena chose to get busted this month outside the downtown federal building protesting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. A few days earlier, scores of mostly conservative ministers across the country had deliberately defied the IRS ban on candidate endorsements by tax-exempt churches. Regas had tripped that wire inadvertently seven years ago, with a sermon that caught the IRS' ear and could have cost All Saints its tax exemption. He's retired from the pulpit, but time has not staled nor circumstance withered Regas' appetite for engagement.
Some pastors are purposely defying the IRS law, evidently to generate a court challenge. You did it accidentally, on the eve of the 2004 election, with your sermon, "If Jesus Debated Sen. Kerry and President Bush."
I think the L.A. Times are the ones who got me in trouble! They had a section devoted to what happened in religious communities [before] the election. They characterized my sermon as "a searing indictment" of President Bush's war, and I have the feeling that got the IRS involved.
So was it a searing indictment of the war?
It was a blazing indictment of how the war was being executed by the president, but it also had things to say about Kerry. Eventually [the IRS] said the church would retain its tax-exempt status [even though it] judged the sermon a violation of the law.
Has a church ever lost its tax exemption?
One [in Binghamton, N.Y.] that put an ad in some papers saying [Bill] Clinton supports abortion and calling on everyone who calls themselves Christian to defeat Clinton. [The church also cited Clinton's positions on homosexuality and condom distribution, and invited tax-exempt donations for the ad.]
Free speech is a right, but a tax exemption is a privilege. Where do you come down?
I'm totally against religious communities endorsing political candidates. That leads to the politicization of religion, and that is not healthy for the country. So I've always said we cannot endorse political candidates. It's foolish to think God's in the pocket of [any] party.
It is unhealthy and unwise for religious communities to endorse political candidates, but it is legitimate to make judgments of political activities. I've tried to live with that tension all my years. I was a huge critic of Clinton's [reduction] of welfare. I'm a huge critic of Obama and the war. I have really abided by trying to take a moral position on important issues that affect Americans, affect the world.
The law says you can support [issues]; you can enter into that arena. You are allowed to support abortion or condemn abortion, [but] you're not allowed to say, "I am for John Doe because he supports my position on abortion.''
Would your clerical colleagues like the line to be clearer, or do they prefer some fuzziness?
The colleagues I work with would want that clear distinction. The people more in the religious-right camp see more legitimacy of a clearer tie of one's faith to one's support of a candi-date.
Is that dangerous?
It's dangerous when we bring religion into supporting candidates rather than into the analysis of certain political positions.
Churches seemed to be doing fine before this tax-exemption law in 1954.
Down deep, I really question the church having a tax exemption. And yet the charitable world is [now] built on the assumption that money will be received because of that exemption. To talk about doing away with it is a radical, radical posture. The exemption law is there because religious institutions are an enrichment to the community.
Isn't the exemption an advantage?
We spent a lot of money at All Saints fighting [the attempt to revoke the exemption] because it was a huge advantage for the welfare of the church. It wouldn't be honest to say it made no difference — financially, it did. But also philosophically it made a difference to say [by ending the exemption] that religious communities no longer are seen as enrichments.
A church being able to have a prophetic ministry to make judgments of what's going on in the nation and the world, from its religious commitment, that is a very important concept of the involvement of the religious community in democracy.
We may not be great churchgoers in this country, but we regard ourselves as very religious. Why is that?
A great deal of that is rooted in the concept of American exceptionalism. It's a huge moral issue — that America has this unique mission, that we are the shining city on the hill. The end result of that concept [can be] that we can have a war where an American child's life is more precious than an Iraqi child's. That exceptionalism allows us to do terrible things to part of the human family because we are America. I see that as at the center of much of the conflicts we're having in the world today.
At All Saints, I recently moderated a discussion on the relationship between science and spirituality. It's so often treated as a zero-sum proposition: As science advances, faith must retreat.
I do not see faith as an opponent to scientific research and progress. That is a very unwise posture. Saying we have no proof of evolution, no proof of warming of the planet—that is not an enhancement to religion in 2011. For [religion] to back away from scientific research would be a calamity. [On global warming], for us who treasure the creation not to give support to that is a gross misreading of who we are and what is happening in the world.
What about other issues? Myriad churches have mobilized against legal abortion.
The issue of [the right to] abortion has failed to have the support that it deserves because we have not looked at it theologically and ethically. The idea [of] a choice is very biblical — that a woman makes the decision of what's going to happen with [her] body and with a pregnancy. To superimpose the government onto that decision is highly questionable. Support for abortion has declined because in my opinion it's all seen as just a political, secular issue and it's lost the undergirding of the religious community that said back-alley abortions were inhuman. A woman's right to choose has been blunted by the conservative religious movement, and progressive religious people have not come into that battle because it's a very controversial battle. We finally ended up, after lots of conflict, saying All Saints is, prayerfully, a pro-choice church.
You're just back from the New Orleans wedding of a young woman whose lesbian parents you welcomed into All Saints a couple of decades ago.
In 1992 I began blessing same-sex unions at the altar. To think that we were doing that 20 years ago, and we survived. It showed that religion could be a place for all people.
What are the implications for churches of the economic squeezing of the middle class and the ranks of poor?
One common thread of the religious communities is economic justice. You can't read the Hebrew prophets and not hear that cry for justice. The same thing in Islam — the righteous person shares with his brothers and sisters. The Christian concept is that we are one family and as family we look after each other. What has gone on in America between the rich and the middle class and the poor is astounding. Most people haven't a clue how much richer the rich have become and how your income and my income and poor people's income has stayed the same or declined.
Authentically religious communities will engage the financial malaise that we find ourselves in. I always felt that a good preacher had the Bible in one hand and the daily newspaper in the other. If that's the way pastors, imams, rabbis are leading their congregations, they cannot ignore what has happened financially in this country.
Some politicians say it's the job of churches, of charities, not government, to take care of the poor and the sick.
That's nonsense. That's absolute nonsense. The churches cannot do that. They don't have the resources. Churches should be addressing health issues. All Saints created the AIDS service center; we created [a program] for children who had no insurance. We need to be participants, but we can't be the solution to that problem
This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. Interview archive: latimes.com/pattasks.