When does a political ideology become a religion–or a political nonprofit a church?
Those questions weren’t uncommon back in the days of the “evil empire,” when a number of pundits suggested that the fervor of communists and fellow-travelers was indistinguishable from that of devout religious believers. When the world became less bipolar–when there was no longer a single, global menace (or savior)– those comparisons also faded away, but the underlying issue remains.
Now, with a new twist.
Is a religion any belief system characterized by an accepted dogma? Wikipedia defines dogma as “a belief or set of beliefs that is accepted by the members of a group without being questioned or doubted,” and goes on to note that It may be in the form of an “official system of principles or doctrines of a religion” –and may also be “found in political belief-systems, such as Marxism, communism, capitalism, progressivism, liberalism, conservatism, and fascism.”
Belief in a deity characterizes some, but certainly not all religions, so that “marker” isn’t dispositive.
If a political ideology is indistinguishable from a religion, what are the consequences for a legal system that separates church from state?
That is just one of the questions that arises from a recent trend reported by Pro Publica— a growing number of right-wing political entities have been petitioning the IRS to declare them churches. That status allows such organizations to shield themselves from financial scrutiny, which is undoubtedly the prime (and arguably corrupt) motivation. The article focused on the Family Research Council (FRC), a rightwing think-tank
The Family Research Council’s multimillion-dollar headquarters sit on G Street in Washington, D.C., just steps from the U.S. Capitol and the White House, a spot ideally situated for its work as a right-wing policy think tank and political pressure group.
From its perch at the heart of the nation’s capital, the FRC has pushed for legislation banning gender-affirming surgery; filed amicus briefs supporting the overturning of Roe v. Wade; and advocated for religious exemptions to civil rights laws. Its longtime head, a former state lawmaker and ordained minister named Tony Perkins, claims credit for pushing the Republican platform rightward over the past two decades.
What is the FRC? Its website sums up the answer to this question in 63 words: “A nonprofit research and educational organization dedicated to articulating and advancing a family-centered philosophy of public life. In addition to providing policy research and analysis for the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the federal government, FRC seeks to inform the news media, the academic community, business leaders, and the general public about family issues that affect the nation from a biblical worldview.”
In the eyes of the Internal Revenue Service, though, it is also a church, with Perkins as its religious leader.
There are advantages to this change in status. Since the FRC was classified as a church (in 2020), it no longer had to file a public tax return, known as a Form 990. Form 990s list the salaries of key staffers, the names of board members and the identities of related organizations. They also contain information about any large payments to independent contractors and any grants the organization has made. And as the article notes, “Unlike with other charities, IRS investigators can’t initiate an audit on a church unless a high-level Treasury Department official has approved the investigation.”
Very convenient. And not, evidently, an anomaly. FRC’s former parent organization, Focus on the Family, became a church for tax purposes in 2016.
In a statement, the organization said it made the switch largely out of concern for donor privacy, noting that many groups like it have made the same change. Many of them claim they operated in practice as churches or associations of churches all along.
FRC has defended the status change as a protection of its “religious liberty” rights, and noted that Treasury Department rules exempt church organizations from the mandatory coverage requirements for contraceptives. They can also discriminate with impunity–refusing to hire women or LGBTQ citizens.
I’m sure that delights them.
The article identified a rogues’ gallery of extremist rightwing organizations that have chosen to identify themselves to the IRS as churches, and noted that the IRS has been inexcusably lax in determining whether those organizations actually meet the agency’s own definition of a church.
Forgive me if I’m being dense here, but if these organizations are churches, can’t the IRS enforce the Johnson Amendment–the rule that prohibits churches from engaging in nakedly political activity–and strip them of their tax-exempt status? (If any of my readers are tax lawyers, please weigh in…) FRC pretends that an affiliated entity is responsible for its direct political activities, but that entity apparently has no employees.
At this point, the various “churches” of Theocracy-R-Us are having it both ways.