Monday, September 24, 2007

Give to Caesar what is Caesar's

As an ironic headline to follow up my last post, the IRS has officially dropped its investigation of a Pasadena Episcopal church while the church wants a formal apology. What was the IRS investigating? A sermon a couple of weeks before the 2004 election that was against the war in Iraq. Huh? The IRS investigating a church about a political sermon, how does that work?

A little background on what this is about. Churches file with the IRS as 501(c)(3) organizations, or a "tax-exempt non-profits." This designation prohibits churches, and other non-profit groups, from explicitly participating in political campaigns or implicitly endorsing one particular candidate over another. This rule stems from Lyndon B Johnson's 1954 Senate campaign that was facing opposition from non-profit groups. At the time, churches were already tax-exempt and this amendment to the tax code wasn't directed towards churches but rather politically active non-profit groups (think the historical equivalent of Swift Boat Veterans For Truth or MoveOn.org). Yet because churches fell under the same tax code as those groups the political restriction applied to them as well. But, despite the growing entanglement between churches and politics, rarely does the IRS actually cite a particular church. But while one could quickly side with a church, regardless of the topic preached, it is a little known fact that a church does not have to file as a 501(c)(3). The only real impact not having "non profit" status would have would be that parishioners wouldn't be able to deduct church contributions on their tax forms. For megachurches with very large incomes, it would also be a significant tax burden. But for a local church, it wouldn't make much difference.

Despite this, there was a bit of an uproar when this investigation first became public. And the sermon in question was a hot topic: The Iraq War. It did seem like the IRS came at this from out of the blue with a biased political agenda, despite being a non-partisan government bureaucracy. So I do think the IRS was poking its head where it didn't belong.

On the other hand, I question whether such preaching is really edifying. Does preaching on political issues build up "unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God [to] become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ" (Eph 4:13)? In other words, would preaching about the Iraq war help someone in attendance to become more Christlike if already a Christian or lead one to Christ if not? Not to mention that the purpose of meeting as an assembly of believers is to worship. Is this worship, or is it just grandstanding?

As for the topic itself, there are two main camps with most people falling somewhere in between. One camp is across the board pacifist, not just opposing war but also opposing military service. That side can look back in history to Roman soldiers who were required to serve in the Roman army but would not pledge allegiance to Caesar. Some would refuse to be crowned with laurels, a homage to Ares, the god of war. The other camp looks at what is happening in the Middle East and reads Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation and concludes that war, especially in the Middle East, will hasten Jesus' return. Never mind that the same was preached up to two decades ago about Russia. Nevertheless, I was quite nervous when Syria and Israel were trading rockets a year ago and one of the regions affected was Megiddo (where we get the word "Armageddon").

So what would be acceptable? To me, a sermon on the above differences in opinion, with scriptures to support both, would certainly be relevant to a church service. But pontificating on an increasingly unpopular war on the other hand, would not. We need to be careful as Christ's body to use our worship to encourage one another, grow in faith, become more Christlike and to glorify God. Our religion should inform our politics, not the other way around.

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