IN THEORY:Investigation of a church's debate

The Internal Revenue Service recently ordered a liberal Pasadena Episcopal church to turn over all its documents and e-mails in 2004 that contained references to political candidates. It's part of a probe into alleged improper campaigning by churches. In the case of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, the investigation started after the pastor delivered a sermon that depicted Jesus in a mock debate with President Bush and his Democratic challenger John Kerry. Do you think this kind of probe is proper?

All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena preaches what it practices and vice versa; I hope our Internal Revenue Service does likewise.

The people and clergy of All Saints have consistently and effectively advocated rights for all: to life and choice, to a decent job and a family wage, to be treated with respect. They have taken controversial positions historically, including opposition to our internment of Japanese Americans during World War II when this was a very unpopular position to take in our nation, and their championing the ordination of women as priests and bishops in the 1970s when a majority in the Episcopal Church did not agree. Their mission statement is "Whoever you are, wherever you find yourself on your journey of faith, there is a place for you here."

Is that liberal? Political? It seems to me to be the well-stated mission of a superb community of faith.

In his Oct. 31, 2004, sermon titled "If Jesus Debated Senator Kerry and President Bush," All Saints Rector Emeritus the Rev. Dr. George F. Regas began "Jesus does win! I don't intend to tell you how to vote." That seems to me to be the boundary, which if violated, would justify the IRS's probe of All Saints.

Please, go to All Saints' website, www.allsaints-pas.org, read Regas' sermon and last Sunday's sermon, "Neighbor Love Is Never Neutral," a response to the IRS summons by their rector, the Rev. Canon Ed Bacon.

Both Regas and Bacon are my friends as well as colleagues; I hold abiding admiration, affection and appreciation for both. If their summons is based solely on that Oct. 31, 2004, sermon, then I think the IRS is engaged in an improper probe and a losing confrontation.

Regas said, "Good people of profound faith will be for either George Bush or John Kerry for reasons deeply rooted in their faith," and concluded, "take with you all that you know about Jesus, the peacemaker. Take all that Jesus means to you, then vote your deepest values."

This seems to me not "improper campaigning," but excellent preaching, public pastoral care.

Preachers should address moral and religious implications of social and political issues. Pastors need to encourage our beloveds to vote their hopes and not their fears, to vote their deepest values. Christians should take all we know about Jesus into the voting booth with us. Indeed, people of faith should use all we are able to discern about God's will for each and every situation in life.

If the IRS's real objection is to the people and clergy of All Saints openly expressing opposition to our war in Iraq, the IRS should say so. If followers of the Prince of Peace cannot share what we believe and think about war and peace with justice in our United States of America, then are not the won-with-great-difficulty and maintained-in-vigilance freedoms of every American seriously endangered?

(THE VERY REV'D CANON)

PETER D. HAYNES

Saint Michael & All Angels

Episcopal Church

Corona del Mar

Since when is being antiwar necessarily also being political? Probably being against war would not change regardless of which political party was in power. And it is hard to understand why anyone would not be against a war that was as ill-conceived and ill-managed as the War in Iraq. That is not political. That is common sense!

The pretense that it is a war against terrorism is ridiculous. It was and is simply a war against Iraq. Must all of the Bush administration's lies go unchallenged?

The idea that any disagreement with the programs of the administration in power constitutes justification to withdraw tax-exemption privileges is a huge overstep. Clearly, any church that tells its members how to vote should be denied tax exemption, although there are some fundamentalist churches that have defied even that ruling and gotten away with it, at least for a while.

If being against the war in Iraq can be considered political, and thus grounds for denying tax exemption, would the church of a minister who told his flock that the rich should help the poor also be subject to the withdrawal of their tax exemption simply because it was contrary to Bush's policies which are to drastically reduce taxes on the rich, while reducing government aid for the poor and destitute?

It seems clear that the administration is using the tax-exemption question and the IRS as a political tool to punish those who say anything against those in power. They sicced the IRS on the NAACP when Julian Bond, that group's chairman, simply criticized the Bush administration on civil rights issues. But when churches promote Republican politicians for office, that somehow seems to get overlooked, and seldom results in such a probe as the IRS is demanding of the All Saints church.

Of course, it is hard to know just where to draw the line on borderline cases, and both political parties would try to get whatever advantage they could, when in power, but this administration is noted for its attempts to intimidate those who say anything against it. Probably the only really fair solution in the long run would be to simply eliminate the tax-exempt status for all churches and then let them openly promote their choices at election time.

JERRY PARKS

Member, Humanist Assn.

of Orange County

I reserve the right to comment from the pulpit on issues of war and peace, social justice and governmental ethics, morality and immorality in high and low places. It is, though, not only illegal but improper for clergy to endorse or excoriate an administration, officeholder or office seeker. Our people ought to hear millennial truths of faith applied to events that dominate the world's agenda, but it infantilizes congregants when clergy advise them for whom to cast their ballot.

Rather than single out an incumbent for affirmation or a candidate for approbation, I would content myself with addressing timely matters in terms of timeless truths.

Discussions of righteousness and peace must suffuse our sanctuaries and infuse our spirits. Bringing Biblical moral imperatives to bear on the challenges and opportunities of the day is a noble enterprise. America boasts a treasured history of clergy confronting ills and passions and directing the light of revelation upon the darkness of thralldom to tyrannies, slavery to taskmasters, and servitude to exploitative superiors.

Religious leaders have served America well as principled advocates of independence, freedom, equal rights and economic well-being, often forfeiting their positions and risking their lives in so doing. They took their cue from the prophets who affirmed that society as they saw it and society as God intended it were incompatible.

It may be discomfiting to hear lofty expressions concretized. "Love your neighbor as yourself" is, for many, better left as an ideal unrelated to their own neighbor. We expect clergy to talk that way, after all they are "religious," but how dare they expect us to actualize it in our daily life! Those are Sabbath words, inapplicable to the work week!

A cartoon portrays the children of Israel cavorting around the Golden Calf. Suddenly, they behold Moses descending Mt. Sinai with the tablets of the Ten Commandments in his arms. One reveler turns to Moses and says, "I hope this isn't meant to be a criticism of our current lifestyle."

It is insufficient to denounce war and exalt peace and leave such matters in the abstract. Certain wars ought to be endorsed by clergy and certain others criticized.

Can we reference the Bible's call for an eternal battle against Amalek and not identify World War II as a latter-day fight against the evil Amalek personified? Can we summon Scripture's defense of the innocent and not address terrorists who seek out civilians as intended targets of their murderous fury? Can we exalt the peace for which Holy Writ yearns and not rail against specific wars undertaken as a first resort, violating a peace that ought to have prevailed?

The same issues that inflamed the prophets should ignite religious leaders today. But, whereas the prophets praised or denounced kings, they lived in a theocracy. In a democracy, clergy's role is to illuminate events by the light of Scripture, not to lobby from the altar for this or that candidate.

I believe in a bully pulpit but not in bullying from the pulpit.

RABBI MARK S. MILLER

Temple Bat Yahm

Newport Beach

Clergy have a right and a responsibility to teach on moral issues. Those issues include war, poverty, AIDS awareness, etc. It sounds like the sermon preached by the Episcopal pastor was creative and thoughtprovoking. I didn't hear any details of the sermon, so I can't tell you whether the pastor quoted or represented the positions of Jesus, John, or George correctly. The news conveniently only gives us enough to stoke the fires. Without reading or hearing his message, I cannot say whether the pastor took one position or another.

The fact that it was days before the election seems to imply the message was intended to have a political effect. Why not preach the sermon the summer prior to the election?

It is interesting that so many people get frustrated that the government doesn't follow up on improper use of taxpayer money, but as soon as it does, everyone squawks. There are far too many organizations using taxpayer money improperly. That does not mean that All Saints is one of them. To some extent, we must allow the IRS to do its job.

I remember these same allegations by Republicans and conservative churches during the Clinton years. Seems like everyone wants to be a martyr. Still, as people of faith, we need to stand with All Saints Episcopal and protect them from undue bullying from the government. If they are in the right, they will be vindicated, and the rest of us need to make sure their rights are protected.

LEAD PASTOR RIC OLSEN

The Beacon

Anaheim

So many churches have crossed the line on this question. I think they should all be investigated. I think it is improper to endorse state and national candidates, and I am perplexed that many of the conservative churches that actually told their congregations how to vote seem to be immune to the kinds of investigation the All Saints Episcopal Church has to go through. It would be nice if religions could just stay out of the political debates, but I realize that many of the decisions that elected candidates are asked to make these days have very real and serious religious concerns attached.

Perhaps it would be best if someone went to court — then the United States Supreme Court could weigh in with a decision that could clarify the boundaries of such commentary and debate. That seems to be the direction this issue wants to move.

I just pray that the polarization that has divided us can somehow be healed and that the country can once again find common ground upon which to live and express God's love.

Many times people ask me about certain religious behavior that appears to endorse violence and hatred. I always respond that any group or individual that is advocating violence and hatred is coming from a political position, not a spiritual position. Such people often cloak their prejudice in a religious garment trying to justify brutality and domination as a means to an end.

Certainly there are those who have sought to validate violence in the name of religion and done horrible things to many people. But even they must be forgiven and a new resolve created to live in peace.

No matter what, peace — and I mean world peace — must begin within the individual as a cause unto itself. No institution, government, or religion will cause peace.

If you want peace in this world you must apply yourself with the genius you've been provided and choose to live each and every moment in peace. This is not easy because it requires personal responsibility for behavior, speech and deed, and that is why I am a minister: to be, to the best of my ability, that model.

And some days I'm better at it than others.

SENIOR PASTOR JIM TURRELL

Center for Spiritual Discovery

Costa Mesa

Most Jews, I think, would agree that there is no longer a Jewish vote in this country. American Jews are diverse with diverse ways of thinking. We all think and feel differently.

Politically, the only exception of the overwhelming majority of Jews, is support for Israel. When rabbis take social issues on the pulpits, it deals with the issues and not the candidates. I think it is wrong for any government — local, state or national — on any level to subpoena e-mails and sermons from congregations. We still have the right of free speech, and rarely is it misused from the pulpit.

Though Jews maintain a separate ethnic-religious identity, most American Jews have a wide range of political views. Their political behaviors and attitudes vary, as well as their occupations and where they live. We are a diverse people with diverse political views, but nevertheless remain a distinct and identifiable ethnic religious group.

RABBI MARC S. RUBENSTEIN

Temple Isaiah

Newport Beach

My question is whether the investigation of improper political involvement is itself politically motivated. This church has an illustrious tradition of antiwar activism. But if the IRS is investigating all questionable activities regardless of which candidates or parties are being supported, then the rules governing tax-exempt organizations are being enforced fairly.

We In Theory respondents addressed a similar issue in 2004 when it related to the Bush-Cheney campaign asking churches to send copies of their church directory to the Bush-Cheney campaign to recruit campaign volunteers within the church and hold campaign-related potluck dinners in the days before the election. I hope that was also investigated!

A critical distinction should be made between the activities the IRS prohibits and the crucial role religious groups play in relating ethics to the concrete issues of the day. Religious organizations that request tax-exempt status are specifically prohibited from participating in a political campaign, endorsing candidates or encouraging people to vote for or against a particular candidate even on the basis of nonpartisan criteria. At the same time, religious leaders may educate their congregants about how their faith tradition relates to critical social and humanitarian issues, whether it's war, poverty, abortion, immigration or others. The tax break given to nonprofits is based on the principle that donated funds were given for the public good, not for the political campaigns of certain individuals.

Will these investigations cause spiritual leaders to err on the side of caution, and to speak out less for fear of retaliation? Will these investigations become a pretext for harassment of certain groups by those in power? We need to be sure the IRS is monitored in its monitoring.

At the Zen Center, formal talks and discussions are given periodically about various issues such as human rights, war, consumerism, the environment, diversity and personal growth in ethical decision-making. We emphasize a daily life engaged practice where meditative awareness guides all activities, including involvement in the political arena whether by voting, debating, volunteering, protesting or running for office. Last month we finished a study of the book "Mind of Clover: Essays in Zen Buddhist Ethics" by Robert Aitken. Each person must take responsibility for deciding how political issues relate to Zen Buddhist ethics.

A 2001 Gallup poll found that 77% of clergy were opposed to fellow clergy endorsing political candidates. According to a Pew Research Center poll, 70% of Americans believe that houses of worship should not favor one candidate over another during political elections. If church leaders wish to support candidates, they have the option of giving up their tax-exempt status.

I believe churches, synagogues, temples and mosques should continue to speak out strongly on all issues but should not endorse political candidates.

REV. DR. DEBORAH BARRETT

Zen Center of Orange County

Costa Mesa

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