Monday, December 24, 2007

Mr. Grassley's War

About six weeks ago, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) decided to look into the financial doings of some churches belonging to the "Prosperity Gospel" branch of Christianity. He's had some mixed responses to his inquiries, according to this article in the NY Times:

Six weeks after Senator Charles E. Grassley asked six well-known evangelistic ministries to provide information on how they spent donors’ money, only two have complied.

The lawyers for one ministry have asked for more time from Mr. Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, who sent letters to the organizations in early November. Three other ministries have not been in recent contact with the committee or have said they will not cooperate.

“This is early in the process,” Mr. Grassley, of Iowa, said in an e-mail message last week. “If the ministries indicate a willingness to cooperate, I’ll be glad to work with them on a rolling production of information. I hope all of the ministries will see that transparency is part of enjoying tax exemption and that they’ll share information in that spirit.
[Emphasis added]

What, is he nuts? Has he suddenly decided to take down Christianity? A Republican?

Well, regardless of the answers to those questions, the senator is at least consistent. He has sent similar letters to other charitable organizations (including the Nature Conservancy) in the past challenging their financial propriety. The government gets to do that sort of thing to tax-exempt organizations.

At least some of the ministries in question this time around are challenging the senator's inquiry on a constitutional basis:

At the outset, some churches, including those outside the inquiry, argued that Mr. Grassley’s inquiry violated the constitutional separation of church and state. ...

Church finances are generally private, because churches do not have to file a 990 form with the Internal Revenue Service as other nonprofits do. ...

To a large extent, those challenging Sen. Grassley are correct: historically, religious organizations have been treated differently than other non-profit organizations based on both the Establishment Clause and the First Amendment. However, the government has always taken the position that if the government extends a benefit (tax-free status), it has the right to monitor that status, especially if the churches are meddling in politics. Usually that monitoring takes the form of an IRS investigation, as it did with the church I attend when a sermon against war was preached during the 2004 election cycle (see here and here).

Here's the problem: if you accept government funding or an exemption that other citizens don't have, you accept government rules, even government intrusion. Accepting tax-exempt status is an invitation to the government to step in at any time.

And here's the solution: give up the tax-exempt status. There's certainly a biblical precedent. Jesus instructed his followers to "Render unto Caesar..." And it would certainly take away any excuse the government might have for meddling in the theology and practices of a church. All the IRS (and members of Congress) could look into is the completeness and honesty of a tax return. There really would be separation of church and state.

I don't expect many religious organizations to agree with me, but that is the only way out of the dilemma.



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