Wednesday, September 27, 2006

All Saints Day

I don't know about you, but I sleep better at night knowing the Internal Revenue Service is on guard.

How else would we know about the goings-on over at All Saints Church in Pasadena - a place where, according to IRS watchdogs, an anti-war sermon delivered in 2004 constitutes campaigning for a candidate, an act so profound that it could cost the church its tax-exempt status.

I mean, just look at the kind of stuff the Rev. Ed Bacon, rector of All Saints, tells his flock.

"We believe in transformation here - the transformation of those who worship together in order for each of us in turn to do our part to transform the world to be more like that dream God has for creation. A world that has not yet been but can and will be if we dedicate our energies to it. A world of healing, love and justice for all, a world of peace among peoples and nations and a world where every human being is fully alive without bigotry, violence, injustice, oppression, terrorism, war or torture."

Shocking? Inflammatory? Revolutionary? Dangerous? Let's get real.

All Saints, the largest Episcopalian church west of the Mississippi, has a reputation for social activism that stretches back more than 65 years. During World War II, its rector spoke out against the internment of Japanese-Americans. The Rev. George Regas, who headed the church for 28 years before retiring in 1995, opposed the war in Vietnam, championed female clergy and supported gays in the church.

So when the topic is war - in this case the war in Iraq - guess on which side of the issue the folks at All Saints are going to land.

But Regas, appearing as a guest pastor, apparently stepped over the line when he delivered a sermon entitled "If Jesus Debated Senator Kerry and President Bush." Though he did not endorse a candidate, he said Jesus would condemn the Iraq war and Bush's doctrine of pre-emptive war.

He also acknowledged in the same sermon that "good people of profound faith will be either for George Bush or John Kerry for reasons deeply rooted in their faith."

Nonetheless, his sermon has caused the IRS to bluster and bully in a way long associated with that particularly agency.

Activism in churches is as old as our nation itself. The Revolutionary War was nurtured in churches. So was the abolitionist cause. So was the civil rights movement. Conservative Protestants and Catholics have been in the forefront of the right to life movement for decades.

At which point do you separate the issues from the individuals? And beyond that, do we really want the IRS playing the role of free speech cop?

Some call the All Saints case selective harassment. But conservative churches as well as liberal ones have been investigated across the country by the IRS over the years.

One church in upstate New York lost its tax-exempt status in 1995 after running a full-page ad in USA Today in 1992 saying that it would be "a sin to vote for Bill Clinton."

But there's no debating that this episode is taking place under the watch of the Bush administration, whose re-election campaign sent a detailed plan of action to religious volunteers across the country asking them to turn over church directories to the campaign, distribute issue guides in their churches and persuade their pastors to hold voter registration drives.

If that isn't campaigning for a candidate, what is?

I suspect the 1954 law governing political activities by nonprofits was never intended to muzzle churches. Even if it had, religion in this country increasingly has a bearing on political affiliation, political values, policy attitudes and candidate choice.

To somehow attempt to regulate it is folly.

The doctrine of separation of church and state is not only intended to keep religion out of government but government out of religion as well.

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