"I’m hopeful because I think there’s an awakening taking place in America. People are coming together around a simple truth – that we are all connected, that I am my brother’s keeper; I am my sister’s keeper. And that it’s not enough to just believe this – we have to do our part to make it a reality. My faith teaches me that I can sit in church and pray all I want, but I won’t be fulfilling God’s will unless I go out and do the Lord’s work. "
In June of last year, Senator Barack Obama spoke to nearly 10,000 fellow believers at a Hartford, Connecticut gathering of the United Church of Christ. For most of an hour, Obama referenced both his faith and his politics, explaining how the former guides the latter. Many would view Obama’s speech as the most recent incarnation of a proud tradition. From John F. Kennedy’s eloquent defense of his Catholic faith in a speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association to President Reagan’s robust denunciation of the "Evil Empire" at a meeting of the National Association of Evangelicals, presidential candidates have often chosen religious fora as places where they can both open up about the intimate details of their personal lives and further explain the moral underpinnings of their policies. There is no doubt, the American people, secular and religious alike, are better off having this type of insight into the minds of those they would elevate to the highest office in the land.
Unfortunately, not everyone agrees on this last point. On Monday, the Internal Revenue Service opened an investigation into whether or not the UCC engaged in prohibited politicking when it invited Obama to speak. If the IRS eventually determines that Obama’s address crossed the hazy line separating the spiritual and the political, the church could be forced to forfeit its tax exempt status.
Setting aside the fact that Senator Obama’s invitation was extended a year before he became the Democratic nominee and that he only mentioned his candidacy once during the speech, the bigger question is: Why is the IRS wasting its time focusing on candidate speech in the first place? The electioneering restrictions on religious (and secular) non-profits are intended to prevent houses of worship from turning into de facto arms of political parties and campaigns. Congress feared the transubstantiation of holy places into tax-exempt political slush funds, not candidate religious free speech.
Under anyone’s interpretation, the politicization that Congress sought to prevent was not present in Hartford that day. The Civic Center was not filled with pro-Obama placards, buttons, signs, or leaflets. Contributions were not made or solicited on behalf of the Obama campaign. Yes, Obama supporters set up tables outside the arena where he was speaking. However, that act cannot be fairly attributed to the UCC.
The Rev. John H. Thomas, the UCC’s general minister and president, calls the investigation "disturbing." He is right. When the government marshals the full investigative power of one of its most powerful regulatory arms, there are very real consequences for those being scrutinized. Future speech and association within every religious community in the nation is chilled when there is a tangible fear that an invitation to a candidate may result in prosecution.
In his speech, Senator Obama discussed many of the pressing moral issues or our time – the need for universal healthcare, the war in Iraq, and the humanitarian crisis in Darfur. However, because his speech had a religious context, was aimed at a religious constituency, and was made in a religious forum, his words are somehow fraught with danger. If the IRS’s enforcement policies have evolved to this point, then it is clear that the agency has become unmoored from the rationale underlying its investigating authority. It is now up to Congress to step in and correct this deficiency.
When politicians and people of faith are discouraged from entering into a dialogue about policy and morality, it is our democracy that suffers. Justice Brandeis once wrote that our nation’s Founding Fathers believed in a government where "deliberative forces should prevail over the arbitrary," that it is speech that protects us from the societal acceptance of loathsome ideas, and that "public discussion is a political duty." When the IRS exercises its authority in an irresponsible manner, as it has done here, it causes our politicians and religious leaders to be derelict in fulfilling that duty and thus, prevents the rest of us from being truly free.