Social Control: How shameless tax exemptions allow radical church leaders to conspire with politicians
For Republicans, the purpose of religion is, as it has been for authoritarians since Old Testament days, political and social control. It is not about spirituality: it is all about raw, naked, taxpayer-subsidized power and the wealth associated with it.
A Michigan county Republican Party just posted a video showing picture after picture of that state’s Democratic politicians, starting with Governor Gretchen Whitmer, who rightwing terrorists have already tried to kidnap and murder.
Under each picture — including a picture of George Soros representing, presumably, the “International Jews” who Republican politicians suggest wield space lasers and secretly are trying to control the world — reads the death threat, in bold, all-caps:
The wealthy pastors of at least four Republican-aligned megachurches in Georgia have invited Hershel Walker to campaign, in clear violation of their tax-exempt status.
Across the nation white evangelical churches brazenly push their parishioners to vote for Republican candidates: they have been getting away with breaking the law since the 1980s and do not show any inclination to stop now.
As the University of Chicago Divinity School noted five months ago:
“In January, Walker spoke at Free Chapel in Gainesville, the congregation led by former Trump evangelical advisor Jentezen Franklin. In late February, Walker spoke during a worship service at First Baptist Atlanta. And in March, he spoke at Sugar Hill Baptist Church, where he made controversial comments questioning evolution. In each sanctuary, the pastors interviewed Walker on stage and offered their support for his candidacy in ways that appear to violate IRS rules prohibiting 501(c)3 tax-exempt nonprofits from engaging in partisan campaign activity.”
It is time for average Americans to stop being forced to subsidize politically radical religious leaders and their institutions.
Back during Trump’s second impeachment trial, Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham and heir to the multimillion-dollar Graham fortune, publicly said that the 10 Republicans voting to impeach Donald Trump in the US House of Representatives were like Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus.
“And these ten, from [Trump’s] own party, joined in the feeding frenzy,” he wrote. “It makes you wonder what the thirty pieces of silver were that Speaker Pelosi promised for this betrayal.”
Franklin Graham is a multimillionaire in large part because neither he nor his family have to pay any taxes on their family’s business’ income or even pay property taxes on the land and buildings their business owns and in which they live.
Instead, you and I and the taxpayers of his town and state pay extra taxes to subsidize Graham and his “ministry,” as we do thousands of other politically active “preachers.”
There is a history to this political-religious-financial complex.
Back in the 1950s, the John Birch Society put up billboards all across America demanding that Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren be impeached because he’d signed off on the Brown v Board decision that required schools be racially integrated.
White churches across the country, along with wealthy industrialists like Fred Koch, helped fund the effort, arguing that school integration was the first step to full-blown communism in America and was against “God’s will.”
Preachers ranted from the pulpit about the dangers of school integration: the issue birthed the modern “religious right.” Bob Jones, Jerry Falwell and others started all-white schools to defy the decision, often claiming that because their schools were “Christian” they were exempt from federal oversight and thus did not have to comply with the Supreme Court’s dictum.
Into this firestorm stepped Senator Lyndon Johnson, who proposed in 1954 that it was fine if churches wanted to engage in politics or argue that Jesus would have been against racial integration, but if they chose to preach and practice racism and politics the rest of America should not be forced to subsidize them.
It passed Congress that year and was signed into law by Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Since the Reagan era, however, the law has been largely ignored. As The Washington Post noted in a 2016 editorial:
“Indeed, more than 2,000 mainly evangelical Christian clergy have deliberately violated the law since 2008 as a form of protest against it; only one has been audited by the IRS, and none punished…”
When preachers push politics instead of religion on Sunday morning, the so-called Johnson Amendment said, their church should lose its tax-exempt status.
As the IRS noted:
“Under the Internal Revenue Code, all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.”
Churches could still participate in non-partisan political activities like a voter registration drive or organizing buses to take people to polling places, but when they took a position on candidates or political issues they lost their right to force all the rest of us pay for their roads, police, fire, and all the other public services that taxes fund.
But ever since George HW Bush brought his son George W. Bush into his 1988 campaign to reach out to white evangelical churches, many evangelists, televangelists, and churches across America have been ignoring this law.
They not only regularly preach rightwing hate, completely inconsistent with Jesus‘s message, but they raise hundreds of millions of dollars — all tax exempt — to inject into political campaigns.
This is not how the Framers of our Constitution thought America should operate.
At the founding of our republic, “Father of the Constitution” James Madison was worried about government influencing and corrupting churches as had happened in Massachusetts before the Revolution.
On the other hand, his mentor, Thomas Jefferson, was worried that churches and their religious leaders could corrupt politicians and government itself.
It turns out both were right.
Their solution was written into Article VI of the Constitution, which says:
“[N]o religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”
They doubled-down on it with the First Amendment:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
Thomas Jefferson later referred to this as a “wall of separation between church and state” that would keep both our republic and our churches independent of each other.
When he became our fourth President, James Madison’s first veto was to reject a piece of legislation that would have given a federal subsidy to a church in Washington DC to feed needy people.
No American government should be giving money to churches, he said, regardless of purpose, and the proposed law he vetoed would “be a precedent for giving to religious societies as such a legal agency in carrying into effect a public and civil duty.”
Sadly, and particularly since the Reagan Revolution, we have badly backslid on this principle. Churches have figured out hundreds of ways to get their hands on government money, and deeply embedded themselves in the business of lobbying and politics.
It’s hard to find a successful televangelist or major evangelical pastor who is not now a multimillionaire, presiding over a multi-million or even billion-dollar empire within America’s multi-billion-dollar-a-year religious industry. And they got there, in part, because you and I are subsidizing them.
Modern history, particularly since 1954, proves the wisdom of Madison and Jefferson‘s concern.
If rightwing religious leaders want to tell their followers how to believe, how to behave, and how to vote, that is fine. That is their right in a nation that celebrates both free speech and freedom of — and freedom from — religion.
Churches, after all, have been telling their members how to behave since the beginning of organized religion. Social and political control exercised through religion is nothing new: it is at least as old as the Bible.
But you and I should not be forced to subsidize their political control over their followers through our tax dollars.
It is time for the IRS to tighten up their enforcement and cut these freeloaders off their free lunch of tax exemption when they engage in politics.
© Thom Hartmann, used with permission. Originally published on The Hartmann Report as How Republicans Conspire with Churches for Political & Social Control
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