Religious freedom, taxes, and corporatism–Part II

by Linda Beale

Religious freedom, taxes, and corporatism–Part II

In Part I, I outlined some of the many ways in which the U.S. provides favorable treatment to religious institutions and/or their representatives, including income exclusions from the federal income tax for ministers that are unavailable to any other occupation.

In this Part II, I want to consider how the  corporatization of religion relates to increased politicization of religious fundamentalism in recent decades and the religious right’s incessant push to influence public policies.  Then in Part III I will return to the uneasy juncture of religious freedom claims and taxation.

A caveat.  It is sometimes easy to mythologize the past, to see it in more favorable light than the present merely because of the filter of time that removes more garish problems.  Sometimes I think that is the way we see the role of religion in political life.  Certainly there is no rosy past where there was a perfect separation of church and state, where religious views were considered to be private matters not suitable fodder for public consumption. There appears to have always been an awareness, at least, about a candidate’s values and religious beliefs, most of the time.  Certainly, most candidates–even those that we may suspect were not active members of a religion–have been willing and able to call on “God” to bless the country.

Think about Abe Lincoln as described in this US News article (Dan Gilgoff, Abraham Lincoln’s Religious Uncertainty, US News, Feb. 12, 2009). Though he grew up in a religious family and read the Bible (one of the few books the family had) and quoted from it liberally throughout his life, he never joined any church. It’s not clear that he actually practiced a religion, though he probably would satisfy what we think of as “spiritual” these days. Early on, he was so clearly non-affiliated that he faced some faith-based attacks (some considered him an atheist as a youth).  But he started attending church services (still not joining) after his son died in 1850 and, in the last 15 years of his life, he often spoke of some concept of God, though what he thought that meant was clearly uncertain.

Maybe a lot of what seemed to be the country’s ease and less attention to the particular religious affiliation of political leaders prior to the more recent marked visibility of religion in political contests was because most candidates and officials were assumed to be some kind of Protestant Christian, with the particular variant not mattering too terribly much when all was said and done.

Remember Kennedy’s candidacy in 1960, and the real concern that his Catholicism might cost him the election.  The US was considered a predominantly protestant-Christian country, and there was considerable discussion in the media about whether Catholic politicians are bound to follow Catholic doctrine in making policy decisions.  Kennedy money likely played a role in quieting the concerns, as the smiling Jack (often with Jackie) was pictured on magazine covers on a routine basis throughout Jack Kennedy’s political career.  See, e.g., Life cover featuring JFK, Jackie and Caroline (April 21, 1958); Life cover featuring JFK and Jackie (Aug. 24, 1959)Life cover featuring JFK and Hubert Humphrey (Mar. 28, 1960); Look cover featuring Jackie Kennedy in October 1960; Look cover featuring JFK, Jackie and Caroline in February 1961.  Familiarity makes the boogie-man seem not so scary.

But in addition to getting good PR, Kennedy openly addressed the concerns about separation of religion and state during the presidential campaign in his famousspeech on his religion, convincing some who had expressed earlier doubts. What is particularly notable about that speech is his claim that it was how he viewed the country’s future, and not his particular religion, that should be of interest to voters.  Also quite notable is his expression of what freedom of religion meant to him.

These [concerns outlined above] are the real issues which should decide this campaign. And they are not religious issues — for war and hunger and ignorance and despair know no religious barriers.

But because I am a Catholic, and no Catholic has ever been elected president, the real issues in this campaign have been obscured — perhaps deliberately, in some quarters less responsible than this. So it is apparently necessary for me to state once again not what kind of church I believe in — for that should be important only to me — but what kind of America I believe in.

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.

I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials; and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.  Id.

What is interesting in this speech–one that was designed to address what was perceived as a political weakness– is that  Kennedy considered himself to be expressing the predominant American view about separation of church and state, when he said: “no protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote”;  “no church or church school [should be] granted public funds or political preferences” and “no religious body [should seek] to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials.”  Id.

The fact that Kennedy was elected suggested that the country had finally grown well beyond the colonizers’ centuries’-old religious straitjacket where colonies killed or converted native populations in the name, e.g., of a state-led Church of England or Catholic Pope and the Civil War era’s constant (and inconsistent) invocation of God as favoring North or South in the political and military strife.

But beginning around the 1970s, dogmatic religious ideologues became stronger players in the country’s political life.  That has included overt attempts to breach the wall of separation that Kennedy had endorsed, including trying to reinstate prayer in schools and city councils (note the current court case on a city council prayer practice); finding various ways to use public money to support private religious schools (through the use of vouchers); and fighting for exemptions from generally valid legislative enactments to allow religious institutions the ability to not comply with the law (including ability to discriminate against employees; ability to prevent employees from having access to the same health care services available to others; etc.).

The increased politicization of religion grew in the US with the corporatization of the religious message.  So-called Christian businesses expanded from a few small Bible and music stores to national corporate-driven mass-marketing of popular Christian recording stars, media empires, and merchandising empires.  The birth of the megachurches, often with their own suburban malls and church-run schools, created the kind of deep pockets that supported political campaigning in earnest, with leaflets and radio programs pushing “values” candidates.  See, e.g., Keilholz, The Megachurch Juggernaut (Mar. 2008).   Religous private and charter schools, and home schooling by fundamentalist religionists, insured that young children wouldn’t be exposed to other ideas and could be brought up as fervent followers of the religous dogma.

Pat Robertson’s religio-poltical empire developed, with the 700 Club and the Christian Broadcasting Network.  Robertson’s 1988 presidential run freely merged politics and religion (often expressed in terms of “values” campaigning).  Fundamentalist groups increasingly pushed for religious views to be expressed at schools, in the public square, in courtrooms, as controversies ignited over creationism and so-called intelligent design doctrines being taught instead of, or alongside, scientific theories of evolution, as schools and city councils (especially in the South) continued to allow  prayers (mostly Christian), and courtrooms displayed the Ten Commandments.

We started hearing the religious view that fundamentalists’ religious freedom was violated when they–or businesses they owned or churches they were associated with–were “forced to conform” by not being able to mandate their views of values for all of society.   We started to get the claim that the country was practicing religious discrimination if it did not allow religious institutions- or even businesses owned by religious institutions or even businesses owned by religious individuals–to exercise purported entity religious freedom rights (or their managers/owners religious freedom rights) to practice in whatever way they wished, even if it meant that the organization’s employees’ (who weren’t necessarily co-religionists with the managing religious institution or commercial enterprise’s religious owner) could not have the same religious freedoms as other Americans.

Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act (commonly called DOMA), an egregious piece of discrimination against gays and lesbians that was pushed for by fundamentalist Christian religious organizations.  California overturned its Supreme Court decision allowing gay marriage, in an initative funded by groups such as the Mormon Church.  George W. Bush instituted a “faith-based initiative”, creating a government post intended to further the expansion of religious institutional involvement in government programming.  The vast majority of the religious recipients of federal monies to run prison programs and similar activities were Christian-protestant organizations.  Although not supposed to proselytize with the funding, proselytization has been a critical part of many of the programs.

And Americans have been bombarded with religious dogma and slogans in the context of political grabs for attention.  So the endless claims that the US wages a “war on Christmas” when holiday songs replace religious carols in public school muscials or when Rudolf the red-nosed reindeer and Xmas trees are required to be placed alongside nativity scenes on the public square.  Google the term and you get 547 million results, including the silly new book listing Sarah Palin, failed half-term Alaska governor and religio-political Tea Party fave, as author.

(See, e.g., David Edwards, Palin links ‘zealot-like’ atheists with ‘war on Christmas’ and slavery with government debt, The Raw Story, Nov. 11, 2013.  Please don’t buy Palin’s book.  You already know what it says.  And you already know the idea is wacky.  Fundamentalists purport to be spreading “freedom” by attempting to force everyone to live by their own “values” and rules.  After all, if you ask any atheist, you will be reminded that Rudolf and Xmas trees are just cartoonish manifestations of fundamentalist Christianity and no diversification of the holiday display at all.  And adding a Kwanza song to the roster of carols or Bach’s rousing Hallelujah Chorus in a setting replete with red poinsettias, “Christmas” lights, and boughs of balsam fir is a minor diversification, at best.)

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama both faced questions about their particular religious faiths.  Romney, who would have been the first Mormon president, had to deal with the long history of concerns about Mormonism, from the massacres sanctioned by Brigham Young to the polygamy actively pushed by the church until it finally succombed to outside cultural and legal pressure to end it (though polygamy is still practiced by split-off sects).  Obama faced “guilt by association” attacks for the stridently expressed views of Rev. Wright, a prominent black minister of a church he attended in Chicago, and “guilt by reason of family” for being born into a racially mixed family that led to him spending part of his youth in a Muslim country around Muslim relatives.  See, e.g., this piece setting out and then debunking the claims that Obama was Muslim.  The continuing attacks on President Obama related to “values” pushed by fundamentalists religionists in the TEa Party/ GOP coalition.

And all those megachurches with megamalls bringing in millions for ministers led to another entanglement of church and state, as government investigators needed to see whether in fact these were just religious scams leading to the private inurement of the purported ministers out of the church businesses.

An investigation by the New York Times into megachurches and their off-shoot companies reported: “Business interests are as varied as basketball schools, aviation subsidiaries, investment partnerships, etc…” The branding of faith with those quaint, little symbols (in lieu of a pesky, troublesome cross) is representative of a shift into commercialism in the battle for Christian market share, now made manifest in evangelical-corporate empires. Says Business Week: “All this growth, plus the tithing many evangelicals encourage, is generating gushers of cash. A traditional U.S. church typically has fewer than 200 members and an annual budget of around $100,000. The average megachurch pulls in $4.8 million.”

Megachurch and televangelist ministers gross enormous salaries. Much of the millions raked in are generated by books, iTunes, and DVDs. But how much is going back into the ministry, considering that, were it not for thousands of devoted followers, most of these [mega]ministers would reside in relative obscurity? According to the Washington Post the Senate Finance Committee has recently announced an investigation into at least six Word of Faith ministers. Megachurch pastors and televangelists alike—Joyce Meyer, Kenneth Copeland, and Benny Hinn among them—are subjects of a probe following reports of unrestrained spending on ministries and private estates. After allegations involving the purchase of “such amenities as private jets and Rolls-Royces” reported thePost, GOP Iowa senator Charles E. Grassley has “asked for credit card records, clothing and jewelry expenses, and any cosmetic surgery expenses” as part of the congressional query.  Id.(Juggernaut).

The current state of affairs is that in spite of the long tradition in this country of religious freedom for individuals–made possible by the Constitutional provision but more broadly by the underlying concepts that the state should not support or fund religious activity and that religious institutions should not be involved in political affairs–it is now politically expedient for a candidate for major political office to publicly claim that s/he ascribes to Christianity.  Similarly,fundamentalist Christian religious organizations, in particular, demand increasingly broad exemptions from generally valid U.S. laws under the claim that such laws impinge on the (institutional) religious liberty.  And religious individuals even claim that their personal religious freedom should allow them to cause their commercial enterprises to discriminate against the religious freedoms of their enterprise’s customers and/or employees.  And some courts are even falling for that wacky argument that allows a business owner’s personal religious freedom to use the business to deny religious freedom to any number of customers and/or employees.  See D.C. Circuit Backs Faith-Based Challenge to Contraception Mandate (discussing Gilardi (D.C. Cir. Nov. 4, 2013) (religious belief of owner of business allows business to discriminate against employees, so health care law contraception mandate cannot be enforced)).  And the need for courts to consider these issues (because of the many suits filed by fundamentalists seeking to overturn generally valid laws as applicable to them) and for government entities to investigate religious enterprises (because of the expanding potential for violation of the rules for tax-exemption and tax exclusions)  amounts to an unfortunate entanglement of religious affairs with the state and the state with religious affairs, and the consequent unfairness of the combination of tax exemption with religious exemptions from generally valid laws.  More on that issue in Part III.