Political group or church? You can’t be both

This column first appeared in The New York Times on April 16 and is reprinted with permission.

By Katherine Stewart

Katherine Stewart
Image by Shutterstock

Consider that, through the miracle of tax breaks, some of your tax dollars will effectively be going to support groups that finance campaigns against same-sex marriage and gun safety. A number of these groups are also entitled to raise money from other sources for political purposes, without filing the disclosures that are required of other individuals and entities. Why? They’ve got God on their side.

Last fall, for example, according to forms filed with the Internal Revenue Service, Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian organization that promotes socially conservative views on matters of public and family policy, declared itself a church.

Focus on the Family doesn’t have a congregation, doesn’t host weddings or funerals and doesn’t hold services. What it does do, with its nearly $90 million annual budget, is deliver radio and other programming that is often political to an estimated audience of 38 million listeners in the United States and beyond. It has funded ads against state legislators who support bills intended to prevent discrimination against LGBT people and it leads programs to combat what it calls “gay activism” in public schools.

Why would such a group want to call itself a church? Short answer: money. Churches can raise tax-deductible contributions more easily, and with fewer restrictions, than other nonprofits can. They also enjoy additional tax shelters, such as property tax exemptions for clergy members — or was that conservative radio personalities?

Next, churches can also enjoy the benefits of dark money. Unlike other groups, churches are required to disclose essentially nothing about who or what supplies them with their funds. And Focus on the Family, like a number of other groups on the Religious Right, may worry that its opposition to same-sex relationships will land it on the wrong side of anti-discrimination law. After all, the “moral behavior standards” in their employee guidelines prohibit “homosexual acts.”

The Family Research Council, a close partner that for a time merged with Focus on the Family, is registered as a nonreligious nonprofit, rather than as a church. But one of the council’s principal aims is to convert America’s churches, or at least conservative ones, into partisan political cells. It seeks to place what it calls “culture impact teams” in churches to “advance Kingdom values in the public arena.”

The way that Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council see it, the bible offers specific information about how people ought to vote. Scripture, they say, opposes public assistance on principle (“God has charged believers to help the poor and widows and orphans,” the council’s culture impact team manual explains). Apparently, the bible is also against gun control and supports privatization of schools through vouchers. It tells us that same-sex relationships are an abomination. It does not want women to have access to comprehensive reproductive care. Environmentalism, according to the source the manual recommends to church groups, is a “litany of the Green Dragon” and “one of the greatest threats to society and the church today.” Other sources the manual recommends promote the notion that the Earth is 6,000 years old.

There is no mystery about which political party the bible supports, at least as these groups see it. In the run-up to the 2016 election, James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family and its former leader, praised Donald Trump and explained that the prospect of a Hillary Clinton presidency “scares me to death.” Their claim that they are nonpartisan is laughable.

If you were worried that the amount of money flowing into politics was bad for our democracy, imagine what will happen when you add a divine exception, allowing partisans to spend freely on behalf of their chosen candidates and causes under the cover of churches. Notwithstanding the Johnson Amendment prohibition on direct electioneering by churches, it’s happening in all but name.

In 2016, Ralph Reed, the chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, spoke at the Road to Majority Conference, which brings together politicians and leaders of the Religious Right. Reed promised to distribute 35 million “nonpartisan” voter guides through churches and help bring voters to the polls. No one funding his operation, or listening to his speech, could have had any doubt who would benefit from his work. Later that day, after Reed stepped off the stage, Donald Trump stepped on to it.

The proof of the effectiveness of this political-religious machine can be read from the exit polls of the 2016 election. Four-fifths of white evangelicals supported Mr. Trump.

When challenged about their blatantly partisan activism, these groups invariably cry out that their religious liberty is under attack. It isn’t. They are welcome to their opinions and free to expose them to the sunlight of the public square. The real issue here is money and transparency. Tax breaks don’t come free; they’re just ways in which the government allocates your tax money. And if the government is going to allocate money in a certain direction, you should be able to see where it’s going.

The process corrupts religion, too. Religion has long thrived in America because most religious leaders respected the separation of church and state, an arrangement that has served our country very well. Under our current law, religious groups are exempt from certain tax and reporting burdens. Political groups are not. Churches need to decide which one they are.

Katherine Stewart is the author of The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children.