Quasi-Church And State

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.


The Rubber Has Hit The Road

Remember that old saying about “when the rubber hits the road”? Its import was that, when the rubber hit the road, it was time to act, to decide…Well, given overwhelming evidence of the GOP’s attempted coup, the neutering of Congress by use of the filibuster, and the morphing of the Supreme Court into a religious tribunal, it’s fair to conclude that the rubber has indeed hit pavement, and a failure to move quickly to recapture the institutions of American life will turn this country into a place most of us won’t want to inhabit.

In the wake of the Court’s ruling in Dobbs, The Guardian was especially blunt. In an article headlined “How the Christian right took over the judiciary and changed America,” it reported–quite accurately-

The supreme court decision in Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which reverses the constitutional abortion rights that American women have enjoyed over the past 50 years, has come as a surprise to many voters. A majority, after all, support reproductive rights and regard their abolition as regressive and barbaric.

Understood in the context of the movement that created the supreme court in its current incarnation, however, there is nothing surprising about it. In fact, it marks the beginning rather than the endpoint of the agenda this movement has in mind.

 At the core of the Dobbs decision lies the conviction that the power of government can and should be used to impose a certain moral and religious vision – a supposedly biblical and regressive understanding of the Christian religion – on the population at large.

Let me just repeat that last paragraph:

At the core of the Dobbs decision lies the conviction that the power of government can and should be used to impose a certain moral and religious vision – a supposedly biblical and regressive understanding of the Christian religion – on the population at large.

How did this happen? How did White Christian Nationalists effectively take over a major political party and the courts? As the Guardian article notes, answering that question requires looking back at the history of the Christian Nationalist movement, and how it “united conservatives across denominational barriers by, in effect, inventing a new form of intensely political religion.”

Christian nationalists often claim their movement got its start as a grassroots reaction to Roe v Wade in 1973. But the movement actually gelled several years later with a crucial assist from a group calling itself the “New Right”.

Among the many things the New Right opposed were feminism and the civil rights movement. One thing that they were not particularly angry about, at least initially, was the matter of abortion rights. A primary concern was that the Supreme Court might end tax exemptions for segregated Christian schools, but they knew “Stop the tax on segregation!” was unlikely to be an effective rallying cry for their new movement. They needed an issue that could be used to unify the various, disparate elements of the New Right, an issue that could draw in the rank and file.

In many respects abortion was an unlikely choice, because when the Roe v Wade decision was issued, most Protestant Republicans supported it. The Southern Baptist Convention passed resolutions in 1971 and 1974 expressing support for the liberalization of abortion law, and an editorial in their wire service hailed the passage of Roe v Wade, declaring that “religious liberty, human equality and justice are advanced by the Supreme Court abortion decision.”

On the other hand, abortion brought conservative Catholics into the movement with conservative Protestants and evangelicals, and allowed the New Right to blame abortion rights for all manner of perceived social ills of the age – especially women’s liberation .”The issue became a focal point for the anxieties about social change welling up from the base.”

In recent decades, the religious right has invested many hundreds of millions of dollars developing a complex and coordinated infrastructure, whose features include rightwing policy groups, networking organizations, data initiatives and media. A critical component of this infrastructure is its sophisticated legal sphere.

 Movement leaders understood very well that if you can capture the courts, you can change society.

And so here we are. The Courts have been captured; the Congress (thanks to gerrymandering and filibuster Joe Manchin) has been neutered. Over 100 state candidates running for the right to count our votes are “Big Lie” proponents.

The rubber has hit the road.  Americans must turn out in massive numbers this November to  dislodge the theocrats and begin the process of reclaiming  America.

All available research shows a majority of Americans strongly opposed to the Christian Nationalists who have assumed control of our no-longer-so-democratic institutions. All voting history shows that a disastrous number of those Americans won’t bother to vote.

If that doesn’t change in November, the America we know is over.


I Don’t Think That Word Means What You Think It Means….

I wonder what theocrats think the word “liberty” means?

I guess we’re going to find out. According to Vox and a number of other media outlets,

Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the creation of a “Religious Liberty Task Force” that will enforce a 2017 DOJ memo ordering federal agencies to take the broadest possible interpretation of “religious liberty” when enforcing federal laws. That memo, for example, prohibits the IRS from threatening the tax-exempt status of any religious organization that actively lobbied on behalf of a political candidatewhich is not allowed under the Johnson Amendment.

In a bold speech delivered at the Justice Department’s Religious Liberty Summit, Sessions characterized the task force as a necessary step in facing down the prevailing forces of secularism. “A dangerous movement, undetected by many, is now challenging and eroding our great tradition of religious freedom,” he said, which “must be confronted and defeated.”

I don’t think I’d call the speech “bold.” “Ignorant” might be a more appropriate adjective.

Secularism, properly understood, is simply the absence of religion–an absence which evidently constitutes an existential threat to the worldview of people like Sessions. And liberty, at least as defined by those who drafted the U.S. Constitution, definitely does not mean the privileging of Christianity and its adherents over all other belief systems, religious or secular, which is quite clearly what Sessions intends.

While the task force will only enforce the guidelines listed by the religious liberty memo, the language in Sessions’s speech was as significant as the creation of the task force itself. Using striking rhetoric and the incendiary narrative of culture wars, Sessions characterized America as an implicitly Christian nation under attack from secularists. In so doing, he is continuing a wider pattern of the Trump administration: treating the federal government as a necessary participant in the longevity of Christian America.

He’s advocating for the kind of Christian nationalism — blending patriotism and evangelical Christianity — that the administration has consistently used to legitimize its aims and shore up its evangelical base.

As the Vox article noted, over the past few years Sessions’ version of “liberty” has gained considerable legal ground–from the Hobby Lobby decision, allowing closely-held corporations with religious shareholders to deny contraception coverage to its employees, to the case of Trinity Church, in which the Court held that a Lutheran church could use taxpayer funds to build a playground on its property. The confirmation of Kavanaugh would likely carve another hole in the wall of church-state separation.

It is obvious that this task force and various other efforts to take America back for (their version of) Jesus have been prompted by fury over civil rights for LGBTQ folks–especially recognition of same-sex marriage–and hysteria over the growing recognition that White Christian cultural domination of America is on the way out.

I’m not going to waste pixels on the fundamentalists who use religion as a justification for their bigotry and who experience any loss of privilege as discrimination. But I am going to protest the misuse of language.

In America, the word “liberty” means “personal autonomy”–an individual’s right to self-government. Liberty means we each have the right to “do our own thing” so long as we do not thereby harm the person or property of someone else, and so long as we are willing to accord an equal right to others. It most definitely does not mean (as the theocrats would have it) an obligation to do the “right thing” as that “right thing” is defined by the theology of the majority and enforced by government.

The First Amendment protects the integrity of the individual conscience against government overreach, and together with the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, it prohibits government from favoring some religious beliefs over others, or from favoring religion over non-religion. (Or vice versa, for that matter.)

The fact that we have an administration filled with people who reject that understanding of liberty—who are dismissive of the most basic premises of America’s history, philosophy and law–is more than unfortunate. It’s scandalous.

Or to coin a phrase, deplorable.


Russia Abroad, Theocrats at Home

Welcome to the Trump/Pence Administration.

Per Right Wing Watch

Last month, it was reported that President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team was giving Religious Right activists, especially the members of his presidential campaign’s evangelical advisory board, unprecedented input in shaping his administration,

Earlier this week, one of the members of that board, Richard Land of the Southern Evangelical Seminary, appeared on the “Point of View” radio program, where he told host Kerby Anderson that he has been shocked by how much influence he and other Religious Right activists have had over the make-up of Trump’s administration.

“Some of my conservative friends and I, we have been pinching ourselves, are we hallucinating or is this actually happening?” Land said. “I know a good number of people on the transition team and I can tell you right now, about half of them, Kerby, think I’m liberal. I mean, these are very conservative people.”

Land went on to say that he had personally been solicited several times for names of potential appointees, something that had never happened with prior administrations. He predicted that the Trump/Pence administration would have more conservative Christians in it than any administration he’d had contact with, including the Reagan Administration.

Hoosiers who suffered through four years of his administration can see Mike Pence’s fingerprints all over these appointments.

Americans now have a President who has neither experience with nor interest in government. He still hasn’t filled most staff positions, he hasn’t educated himself about the challenges he’ll face, and he’s given no evidence that he understands what the job of President entails. Instead, he has engaged in the same petty, self-aggrandizing behaviors we’ve come to expect: arguing about the size of inaugural crowds, lashing out at the women and men who marched in opposition to him, threatening the press, and generally acting like a five-year-old spoiled brat.

Meanwhile, reports of his campaign’s Russian connections continue to grow.

It shouldn’t surprise us that, in the absence of any interest in actually governing, Trump would hand off pesky details like staffing to his Vice-President. After all, when Trump Junior approached John Kasich about the Vice-Presidency, he reportedly promised Kasich he could run the country while Trump spent his time “making America great.”

If it were Kasich making the decisions, I would actually feel a lot better. Giving Mike Pence that authority is another matter. Pence is equally uninterested in the boring details of policy (ask anyone who observed his performance as Governor of Indiana), but unlike Trump, who is concerned only with himself, Pence does have an agenda–a theocratic one.

Pence is a Christian culture warrior. His priorities are outlawing abortion, defunding Planned Parenthood, taking money from public education and directing it to Christian schools (Betsy DeVos was deeply involved in Indiana’s voucher program), insuring that Christians can discriminate against LGBTQ citizens and a variety of other measures that would legally privilege fundamentalist Christianity. (He seems to have skipped over those passages in the Christian bible that counsel caring for the poor, refraining from judgment and abstaining from public prayer…like most culture warriors, his is a highly selective reading of the bible.)

So this is what voters in white, rural America have given us: an unstable child-President with mysterious ties to Russia’s Vladimir Putin and the various oligarchs who funded his projects after American banks declined to do so, and an equally vacuous Vice President who is a True Believer intent upon imposing his crabbed version of God’s Will on the rest of us.

Worse, if we somehow got rid of both of them, we’d get Paul Ryan, whose deepest desire is to throw grandma off Medicare…..The next few years are going to be very trying….


Hoosiers, Of All People, Should Reject Trump/Pence

Well, tomorrow is the Vice-Presidential debate. Those non-Hoosiers who tune in–almost certainly not the “YUGE” number that viewed the Presidential face-off–will get a chance to see what Indiana citizens have been living with for three-and-a-half years. If the Mike Pence who shows up is the Mike Pence who has embarrassed us in prior media confrontations (George Stephanopolis wasn’t the only one), it will give Hoosier Republicans yet another reason to abandon the Trump/Pence ticket.

It’s worth noting that Pence’s wooden and inadequate public performances are the least of those reasons.

Recently, Pence was asked which Vice-President he would model himself after in the event the Trump-Pence ticket prevailed. His tone-deaf but undoubtedly sincere response was “Dick Cheney.”

As a recent post to DailyKos pointed out,

If Donald Trump wins the election, we know two things with certainty: 1) he’ll implement the most racist, xenophobic, militant immigration policy this nation has possibly ever seen; 2) he won’t have the attention span to preside over any other issues of governance.

That’s where Mike Pence comes in and if you haven’t been paying attention to what he’s been saying, you’re not getting the full picture of how wildly non-empathic, socially conservative, science-less, anti-woman, anti-LGBTQ and downright scary a “Trump” administration would be.

Now, DailyKos has a lefty perspective, but it is very hard to argue with any of the quoted language.

Those of us who have watched Pence “govern” during what would pretty clearly have been  his single term in the Statehouse have noted his oh-so-“Christian” passions: his determination to de-fund Planned Parenthood (despite the fact that such action would leave thousands of poor women with no healthcare); his seething hostility to the gay community (that one would have been hard to miss); his campaign to fund religious schools with tax dollars taken from the public schools.

His antagonism to science, denial of climate change (and evolution, for that matter), and efforts to have Indiana avoid compliance with environmental rules, have been fairly high-profile.

And since he joined the Trump Train, we’ve learned how sensitive he is to racial issues. (Irony alert.) Asked in an interview about the string of police shootings of unarmed black men, Pence responded

“Trump and I believe there’s been far too much talk about institutional bias and racism within law enforcement”

Translation: Because if we don’t talk about it, people like us who encourage it won’t have to answer these uncomfortable questions.

During the 3 plus years he’s been in office, Hoosiers of both parties have come to recognize the Governor as an ideologue uninterested in the nitty-gritty of public administration, a man whose purpose in running for public office has been essentially theocratic–to use whatever power he can muster to impose his personal religious views on citizens who don’t share them.

During the Presidential campaign, it has become clear that Trump has even less interest than Pence in actually doing the day-to-day work of governing, if he even recognizes what that work entails. When Donald Junior approached John Kasich about the Vice-Presidency, several media outlets reported that the offer came with a promise that, if Kasich accepted, he would be given broad authority over the Executive Branch–essentially, he could run the show while The Donald preened for cameras and indulged his self-importance.

Kasich–being both honorable and in possession of his senses–said no thanks.

Pence–being neither–evidently accepted the bargain.

Enjoy the debate.