Churches, Charities, Taxation, and Politics

Posted July 16, 2014 by billpeach
Categories: Uncategorized

Religious groups, like other not-for-profit organizations, enjoy tax-free status. They do not have to pay taxes on the donations they receive and are usually exempt from state taxes on the goods they purchase and local taxes on land they own. Individual clergy, however, must pay federal and state income taxes.

Occasionally, the suggestion is made that churches ought to be taxed. Religious groups have amassed great wealth. Some suggest if we taxed them we could balance the budget.

No state has seriously considered the notion of directly taxing churches. Many states do tax churches if they are involved in for-profit ventures unrelated to their religious mission, but otherwise the general tax exemption afforded churches if fairly safe.

The issue of taxing churches is not without controversy. In order to remain tax free, churches must refrain from getting too heavily involved in politics. For instance, groups considered non-profit by the Internal Revenue Service may not endorse candidates for public office. Also, they may not attack someone running for public office to the extent they effectively endorse his or her opponent. This is a gray area. Some churches are known for their political activism, and many have been accused of going too far in their political activities.

In 1991, the IRS conducted a lengthy investigation of Jimmy Swaggart and found him guilty of violating IRS rules by twice endorsing Pat Robertson for president during the 1988 campaign. He was not fined monetarily but was ordered to sign a statement promising to refrain from intervening in future campaigns. This was during a time when he was involved in a sex scandal, and the IRS may have seized the opportunity of human frailty to warn others about mixing religion with politics.

In contrast, Jerry Falwell was fined $50,000 after the IRS determined that the Old Time Gospel Hour had illegally channeled money into a political action committee that gave money to conservative congressional candidates. The IRS revoked his tax-exempt status retroactively for 1986 and 1987.

Many religious groups still think politics is a dirty business in which churches should not be involved. Jehovah’s Witnesses and some other fundamentalist denominations take an extreme position and refrain entirely from getting involved in politics. Some of their members do not vote.

The courts have ruled that there is no legal barrier to taxing churches and other religious groups or other secular non-profit organizations. In 1971, the Supreme Court ruled that it is not unconstitutional for states to give churches tax exemption. The Court merely said that it does not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Another marginal question is issue based political involvement. For example, several Catholic parishes openly endorsed in their church bulletins, candidates who held anti-abortion positions for state and federal offices. In the fallout from this, Catholic hierarchy issued memos warning clergy not to endorse candidates; form political action committees; or distribute campaign literature. The image of the IRS as a fierce bureaucracy may be true for some groups and individuals, but it has played the game softly with churches.

The logic of tax-exempt status for churches or other religious groups is that most provide many charitable and humanitarian social services. Government believes these services provide a valuable safety net for society and reduce some of the burden on the state. If the church provides shelter for the homeless, food for the hungry and elderly, and care for orphans, those are services government does not have to provide. The government does not want to, nor should it, discourage the social mission of churches by imposing burdensome taxes or penalties on them.


Historical Images of an Earlier South

Posted July 11, 2014 by billpeach
Categories: Uncategorized

If you grew up in the South you probably have some of the same memories I have about education. When I was a child, almost every adult seemed to regret not having greater educational opportunities. We spoke of education as something that “nobody could take away from you” whatever that meant. It was that thing of value that would liberate you from “back-breaking, sweat-of-the-brow” labor that was a noble calling and a Godly endeavor, but which carried some inexplicable tinge of guilt or disappointment.

Education was that which would enable you to “amount to something” or “be somebody” but there was an underlying fear of education. Education could take you away from the place, the people, the church, the traditional values, the politics, the work ethic, and the old ways that were the embodiment of everything that was right.

In the rural South I found a paradox of the expedient amount of education one should attain. Schooling was mandatory to a point in measurable four-year increments. The minimums were finishing the eighth grade, or high school, or a college degree. The last four years being reserved for the select few. We seemed to have been judged by what we did or did not finish. Education was like hoeing or plowing a row, if you started you had to finish. Consequently, a lot of rows did not get plowed or hoed.

The need for education was defined by how much education you would need to do what you were going to do in life. Necessity was the minimal standard for education in the South. Tradition dictated mastering factual information to the limits of mental retention, but most people exhibited some distrust of educational pursuits beyond that which could be known for certain. Numbers were necessary to enumerate only those things which needed to be counted. We learned the multiplication tables for numbers defining quantity to measure dollars, dozens, pounds, acres, and the number of books in the Old and New Testament. We learned about miles to know how far it was from where we were to where we were going. Mathematics, or ‘rithmatic, had no abstract value.

In language arts, reading and writing, the value of words was inversely proportional to the number of syllables in each. We had little respect or demand for words with more than two syllables. Any extension of syllabication was the function of southern speech inflection rather than the addition of syllables. The South embraced ethics and logic within the safety of two-syllable comprehension, but never gave its blessing to metaphysics, aesthetics, or epistemology. Philosophy was considered to be whatever opinion someone might hold and was validated by its brevity and orthodoxy. Faith, family, folklore, and tradition became the solidified and deterministic frame of reference into which subsequent knowledge had to fit. Logic, or common sense, was the final determinant in southern wisdom, but logic was defined by existing standards of law, certainty, and tradition. Similarly, ethics was the final determinant in southern behavior, but ethics was defined by the Bible, primitive survival instincts, and tradition.

Academia in the South has not been given proper recognition for many reasons. The national news media and television imagery has been slow to accept the articulation of southern wisdom. Television footage of interviews with educated southerners seems to die on the cutting room floor. The emergence of intellect coming from political candidates, the rational theology coming from our pulpits, and scientific and historical integrity in our classrooms are often preempted by the colorful language and shallow perceptions of those who more nearly fit historical images of an earlier South.


The Advantage of the More Conservative

Posted July 3, 2014 by billpeach
Categories: Uncategorized

As we enter the 2014 election cycle, our landscape is cluttered with yard signs and our mailboxes are stuffed with printed material. In the quest for advantage, most of the candidates seeking office have included the designation conservative to define their political ideology. In southern states the competition is between the conservative candidate and the more conservative candidate, and often a third candidate who claims to be superlatively the most conservative.

Historically, conservative has been interpreted as favoring and maintaining existing or traditional order and opposition to change. In the current unrest, this definition is probably not accurate. It represents one extreme in the cycles of change between political majorities that we label as liberal and conservative. We have a liberal president, a liberal majority in the Senate, a conservative majority in the House of Representatives and the Supreme Court.

We use the words liberal and conservative to reflect virtue and moral values for ourselves and for disrepute and immoral attributes on others. We may have lost the original semantic definitions of both words.

Several years ago, during a speech at a book signing event, I made references to my grandmother whom I referred to as being liberal. I cited her generosity of big spoonfuls of beans and potatoes on the plates of farm workers at dinnertime. She sacrificed to put money in the Sunday morning collection plate. She treated our black worker with dignity, even though he sat away from the main dinner table. Something in my narrative appeared to be a disclaimer on my part. Someone in the audience asked why I apologized for being a liberal. I explained where I lived, and that I had to maintain some credibility with my friends and neighbors.

He followed by asking if I realized that Jesus was a liberal. To which I replied, that Jesus didn’t have to get along with my friends and neighbors. This was followed by laughter from the audience.

In our southern culture we have used conservative to define our politics and religion, and liberal to include everything and everybody that are antithetical to the ideas we embrace as traditional or Christian values. Conservative also includes the connotation of caution or moderation. We may have lost that as we have moved farther to the right and farther to the left.

Much of the breakdown in conversation comes when those who consider themselves conservative embrace the definition of the word liberal to reflect what is good within their ideology of politics and religion. This would include the catch phrases, open-minded, tolerant, generous, and advocates of civil and political liberty. No one would question those attributes by either label.

I think we are a little dishonest when we try to identify Jesus as a conservative or a liberal, as a Republican or a Democrat. We can easily cite Bible verses to validate either claim. Last week I had a discussion with a man about self defense, war, violence, and the second amendment. He cited Jesus’ admonition to his disciples to sell their possessions and buy swords for survival after his death. This was followed by his rebuking Peter for dismembering an ear, and commanding him to put away his sword and warned of a cycle of violence of living and dying by the sword.

The Old Testament is a document of the existing traditional order at the time of the coming of Jesus. It was strict and is taken literally by most fundamentalist Christians. Yet, the content of the Gospels depicts a very human Jesus, who embodied the attributes that we today either embrace or reject as being liberal.


Emotional Voters and Rational Voters

Posted June 17, 2014 by billpeach
Categories: Uncategorized

It seems that extremists on the left and extremists on the right have convinced everybody that something is wrong with America. In the time I spend on the computer I have the television on in the background. I spend more time listening rather than watching television. As a junkie for politics, religion, and philosophy I do most of my channel surfing from 249 to 260, from Aljazeera to Fox. In passing, I have 6 other options, including MSNBC, CNBC, Bloomberg, congressional inquisitions, book events, and another Fox.

We have created for ourselves a culture of hyperbolic fear and anger. Much of this is traceable to the cycles of occupancy of the White House, majorities in Congress, and the Supreme Court.

The most divisive event at the moment is the impending collapse of the Iraqi government. We have coined the phrase “leading from behind” to define President Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq. This follows eight years of derogatory references to “neo-cons.” Our withdrawal has precipitated the collapse of an unstable government. We blame President Bush for “breaking it” and President Obama for “not fixing it.” Now we insist that our soldiers died in vain either for a war we should not have started or should have continued longer.

This argument parallels the options of our “common defense” and being militarily strong enough to deploy military forces to every trouble spot on the globe, or the diversion of revenue to infrastructure, public assistance, education, “the general welfare” and “domestic tranquility.”

The Supreme Court just ruled that holding a high school graduation in a “mega-church” was not consistent with the First Amendment. Many people among Evangelicals and Catholics sincerely believe there is a war on religion in America. Many Liberal main-stream Christians and the non-religious persons believe that separation of church and state is essential for freedom of religion for everyone. The argument over whether we are a Christian Nation or a secular nation perpetuates the fears of atheism and theocracy.

There are millions of undocumented illegal residents in America. We seem to have found the dichotomy of “amnesty” or “round-up and deportation.” We are caught between advocates for necessary migrant labor or exploitation of cheap labor. We debate “a path to citizenship” that would shift the political advantage. We still don’t know what to do with the children brought across the border by illegal traffickers. This is another conflict of humanitarian ideology and pragmatic economics.

The Supreme Court recently ruled 5 to 4 that it is illegal for a person to, under false pretense, purchase a gun for another person. This was portrayed as a small victory for gun-control advocates and a loss for the National Rifle Association. The Second Amendment is part of our Constitution, written when survival, acquisition of food for the table, a well-regulated militia, lethality of weapons, and the culture of violence were different from today. We live in a conflict of fear of ubiquitous proliferation of guns and fear of a tyrannical government and confiscation of guns.

We are also caught in an emotional confrontation between Roe v. Wade and “personhood” legislation that defines a fertilized egg as a human. We are conflicted between “a woman’s right to choose” and “rights of the unborn.”

As we approach the election season, these are high priority emotional issues that determine for whom we vote. Candidates campaign with fear and trepidation. Moderate or rational candidates move to the left or right to appeal to their voter base in Red or Blue legislative districts. What’s wrong with America? It is us. Angry voters tend to vote in greater numbers than rational voters.

The Continuing Theme of Losing Our Constitutional Rights

Posted May 27, 2014 by billpeach
Categories: Uncategorized

The continuing theme of losing our constitutional rights took a dramatic turn when Senator Ted Cruz announced that the Senate Democrats were attempting to do away with the First Amendment including the rights of freedom of speech, the press, and religion. He was addressing an audience of conservative pastors in Washington, D. C., when he made the statement.

In his most recent accusation, he was reacting to an effort by Senator Tom Udall to grant Congress power to regulate the raising and spending money in federal political campaigns. The Democrats are trying to reverse the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United, which ruled that money is the equivalent of speech in political contributions.

Cruz tried to convince the Family Research Council that this legislation would give Congress power to silence the political voice of pastors. In theory, religious institutions are already limited in their participation in politics. The Internal Revenue Service specifically states that, “Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity.” Churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples are considered tax-exempt non-profits which prohibits such activity.

Actually, there were limitations in place to limit the amount individuals could contribute before the 2010 court decision. This theory coming from the right is consistent with the continuing argument that there is a war on Christianity. The continuing argument that America is a Christian nation would eliminate the establishment clause from the First Amendment. Any effort to limit religious political speech is perceived by the religious right as abridging the free exercise of religion.

In the long debate over separation of church and state, left-wing Christians and right-wing Christians are divided over whether Jefferson and Madison supported separation to protect government from religion or to protect religion from government. This comes on the heels of a recent court decision that it is constitutional to open government meetings with a prayer if the prayer is not sectarian favoring one religion over another. How we would enforce that restriction, I do not know. Most liberal Christians support separation of church and state within the premise that without separation there is no religious freedom for anyone.

Senator Cruz did not mention the recent controversy over freedom to peaceably assemble for redress of grievance. The insistence coming from the right that we are losing our freedoms was spotlighted in the recent assemblage of an armed militia defending the rancher delinquent on fees for grazing cattle on federal land. The right has argued at length that Democrats, specifically President Obama, are also on a mission to abolish the Second Amendment. Social media abounds with videos of an effort in Texas and other states to pass and enforce the open carry anywhere of unlimited long guns and automatic military-style weapons. Many national restaurant chains have refused service to bands of armed potential customers gathering at Starbucks, Chili’s, and Sonic to challenge any infringement of their Second Amendment rights.

The voices of fear coming from the political and religious right have formed an unlikely coalition of the religious, the wealthy, and the proponents of the right to keep and bear arms. Our fear of government seems to fit into 8-year cycles of presidential administrations. In each cycle, there is always a counter and concurrent culture of fear of concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, the imposition of religion on legislation, and the ominous presence of armed militia as equal threats to the First Amendment rights of others.

Every Citizen, a Law unto Himself

Posted May 7, 2014 by billpeach
Categories: Uncategorized

Religious liberty is a cornerstone of the American way of life, a fundamental principle of the U. S. Constitution. The Founding Fathers were close enough to the bloody religious wars in Europe to establish a government respectful of all religions, but demanding none. Still, no Constitutional freedom is limitless. For more than a century, jurists have restricted liberties when they interfered with other important values.

If two values are in conflict, an individual’s right to equality ought to win out. In a 1993 Supreme Court case Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority, “Can a man excuse his practices because of his religious belief? To permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.”

Most of us interpret the First Amendment to guarantee religious freedom to individuals. Recent discussions involving legislation, and Supreme Court decisions have applied these principles to churches, religious charities, religious-issue political groups, school administrations, family owned businesses, and corporations.

In Tennessee, the House and Senate has passed the “Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act” and sent it to Governor Haslam for signing. The purpose of the bill is to protect student religious rights and allow students to impose religion on other students. The possible effect would come if this involves sanctioned religious activity, school events, and use of the intercom and public address system, subjecting other students to religious content, leaving parents with no recourse. Should a student of a minority religious faith or a non-believer be permitted similar access? This legislation brings into question whether a student could stand in class and say their religion teaches that gay people are sinners and are going to Hell, and would that speech be protected?

On a national scale, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Sebelius vs. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. as to whether for-profit companies can use their religious beliefs to deny their employees coverage of contraceptives, currently entitled to by federal law. The drugs in question are scientifically designated contraceptive, not abortifacient. Non-profit organizations with religious objections to birth control have also challenged the benefit. This raises the question of whether an employer could discriminate against single mothers, or deny coverage of immunizations of children for religious reasons. Some religious groups might keep outdated practices toward women, denying them equal access to jobs. While many people believe God has designed a patriarchal family structure, our civil society puts a premium on promoting equality. Many instances of child abuse and spousal abuse have roots in the disciplinary dictates of cult-like religions. If businesses are given exemptions from a valid law that serves a useful public purpose because they claim it violates religious beliefs, where would it end?
In the long history of education, courts have ruled that is unconstitutional to expend public funds for sectarian instruction. These principles are derived from the writings of Jefferson and Madison who believed that religious freedom was best achieved through separation of jurisdictions of religious law and civil law.

The origins of the religious right in the 1980s, the Moral Majority, and later Evangelicals have reinvigorated the argument for the subjugation of the Constitution and civil law to Biblical law. Some argue that morality and ethical conduct are derived only from divine command, and question the validity of secular morality. Normally, we consider morality as a religious directive, and we enact civil laws to protect religious freedom, and define unethical and illegal conduct and protect civil rights of others that might be denied in the name of religion.


Going Back to a Former Place, State, or Time

Posted April 28, 2014 by billpeach
Categories: Uncategorized

There seems to be a consensus that our culture is in decline, and the time has come to take back our country. We identify trends which we associate with our decline and cite events or groups or individuals who caused that decline.

I remember the end of World War II. In the late forties we celebrated the heroics of having defeated two major evil empires and made the world safe for democracy. We had recovered from a great depression. It was a time of optimism and national unity.

The cold war against Communism, the resurgence of the Christian nation image, and desegregation may have initiated our liberal and conservative divide. Our conflicted fears have led us to believe we are losing the traditional values with which we individually identify. In the presidential election of 1952, our national affection for General Eisenhower and distrust of what we have come to call liberalism reversed the political party identification in much of the South. We found security in adding religious phrasing to our money, our Pledge of Allegiance, and our public buildings.

The end of segregation led to the establishment of private religious schools. For many people in the South, the linkage of integration and Marxism was a foreshadowing of secular schools, removing God from the classroom, and a distrust of intellectualism and secularism as the enemies of traditional values and conservative Christianity.

The sixties brought us the generation gap. The fear of Communism took us into Vietnam and the anti-war movement, civil rights activism, the sexual revolution, and a culture of drugs, music, and anti-establishment violence that alienated the Greatest Generation from a rebellious and defiant generation. The decade of the sixties permanently institutionalized our liberal and conservative identity. We moved from the exaggerated glorification of the Camelot dream of John Kennedy, to the birth of the Reagan era and the emergence of the Moral Majority and the inextricable fusion of religious fundamentalism and conservative Republican politics.

To understand the concept of taking back our country, think of a different phrasing and meaning as taking our country backward to a former time which we identify in some way as being better than the time in which we live. We have validated our certainty that our nation is in decline by citing the cycles of our culture as the historical evolution of the rise and fall of empires that spans centuries with our renewed allegiance to the Constitution and the Founding Fathers. We then superimpose the span of our lifetime, in generations and decades, to validate the decline in faith, family, patriotism, education, ethnic purity, traditional sexuality, and the simplicity of the life that preceded our present suffering and ideological challenges.

Our democracy thrives, or survives, as a fragile coalition of ideas that form marginal majorities in four and eight year cycles of optimism and pessimism. We compete for the mind of America in our media and universities, and for the soul of America in our churches and evolving secular moral values.

We live in a state and a county that are overwhelmingly Republican, conservative, and fundamentalist. Consequently, we often find ourselves in conflict with a Democratic, liberal, and humanistic national majority. However, our country belongs to all of us. It is not something we could take away from each other. Nor, can we go back to a mythological time that in reality was not better. The national consensus of a decline in our country is a diametric cycle of dramatic loss and delayed reversal of ideological, economic, and cultural equality or advantage inherent in any democracy or capitalist economy.


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