Biden Should Withhold What’s Most Sacred to Rightwing Churches — Money

Enough is enough. President Biden must reverse Trump’s executive order and direct the IRS to enforce the so-called “Johnson Amendment”

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A group of rightwing American Catholic bishops are trying to withhold one of that church’s most sacred rituals – communion or the Eucharist – from President Joe Biden, a devout Catholic, because he and his political party favor a woman having the right to choose abortion and birth control.

Biden, for his part, should withhold from them what many of them (and the Catholic Church for centuries) appear to hold most sacred: money.  Specifically, the massive, multi-billion-dollar annual subsidies American taxpayers provide rightwing churches every year via their tax-exempt status, which forces you and me to pay for everything from their land to their police and fire services to the roads people use to attend their services where they’re preaching politics instead of Jesus.

Back in 1954, following the Supreme Court’s Brown v Board decision ordering an end to segregated classrooms and reversing their 1896 Plessy decision that established legal apartheid in America, white churches across the country were preaching against politicians who supported enforcing the decision in a campaign named “Massive Resistance.”

The movement started in whites-only rightwing churches, and soon moved to county and state governments as entire school districts were shut down to prevent integration. Religious broadcasters and pamphleteers were spreading the word.

In response, a coalition of Republicans and Democrats in Congress passed an amendment to the US tax code that specifically removes the tax-exempt status from any nonprofit organization (including churches) that “is carrying on propaganda, or otherwise attempting to influence legislation… or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”

Rightwing propaganda operations started calling it the “Johnson Amendment” during the 2008 election (the new label apparently first popped up on Wikipedia in 2016) to make it seem more left-wing, but there was an absolute bipartisan consensus about this in the 1950s. It needs to be enforced.

In 2017, Donald Trump signed an executive order directing the Treasury Department (and, thus, the IRS) to refrain from enforcing the so-called “Johnson Amendment,” although it hadn’t been meaningfully enforced in over a decade.

White-congregation churches began violating the tax laws in a huge way with the 2008 election when Barack Obama was on the ticket, and doubled-down in 2012 when he ran for re-election. They openly defied the IRS, quite literally daring them to enforce the law…and the IRS rolled over.

Like America’s billionaires, “religious” tax cheats apparently find a dramatically diminished IRS (after decades of Republican-led budget cuts) easy to defy. As The New York Times reported, “The agency’s budget has been repeatedly cut since 2011, forcing it to reduce its enforcement staff by a third.” As CNBC noted when Trump continued the trend by proposing further cuts to the IRS, “Spending within the agency has declined by $533 million and its staff has dropped 14 percent since 2012.”

It’s a trend that actually began with Reagan, and all-white rightwing churches leaped into this gap with gusto.

In 2008 the rightwing white-church leaders declared a “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” against the Obama candidacy late September just before the election, and across the nation openly preached against a Black man becoming president. They doubled down during the 2010 midterms, declaring another “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” on September 26, 2010 the weekend before that election.  And they’re still defying the law, now with American Catholic bishops and some of their churches jumping into the game.

These “pastors” don’t appear to give a rat’s ass about spirituality or the religious experience; they’re all about political power and the wealth that can bring. Or perhaps there’s something that naturally ties religious power and political power together in humans; that’s certainly consistent with the history of organized religion.

I’ve seen this up-close and personal.  On August 2, 1998 Louise and I spent an evening with Pope John Paul II and about two dozen other VIPs who’d been invited to his summer palace, Castel Gandolfo, to hear a concert and have private audiences with His Holiness afterwards. (My contemporaneous diary of that day is here.) 

Through the 50-minute concert we sat a few dozen feet from the Pope, who occupied a huge golden throne in front of a 15-foot statute of St. Peter holding his book and keys to heaven. Afterwards he gave a short speech, ending with, “I accompany these sentiments with a special Blessing which I willingly impart to those present and to their respective families, in the hope of abundant heavenly graces.”

Watching all the pomp and ceremony, it struck me that if that man were to just say a few words, for example, “Kill all the Muslims,” it could plunge the world into war and turn civilization on its head. In fact, his predecessors had done just that, kicking off the Crusades hundreds of years earlier. This was a head-spinning level of political power.

When we met privately with him later that evening, it had all the trappings of a visit to a head of state. The power was palpable.

The day before we went up to Castel Gandolfo, one of the Pope’s assistants gave Louise and me a private tour of the Vatican. The art, gold and wealth were astonishing; this is more than a church: it’s an actual nation-state, complete with a seat at the United Nations.

Seven years earlier, I’d been in Bogotá, Colombia and met with the Archbishop of Bogota, Mario Cardinal Revollo Bravo, at his headquarters, the Cathedral-Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, a massive church and building structure off Bolivar Square.

I was then doing international relief work for Salem International out of Germany, and we’d been offered an abandoned church property down near Medellin to house homeless people. A Colombian/German co-worker, Elizabeth, accompanied me to serve as a translator, although we soon discovered that the archbishop spoke fluent English.

When we determined that the property in Medellin wasn’t appropriate for our needs, Elizabeth and I made an appointment to meet with the archbishop.  He kept us waiting for several hours and then we were ushered into a huge office converted from a wing of an old Spanish church to meet him.

The massive room was filled with ancient art and stained glass windows, and the Archbishop sat on a huge carved chair resembling a throne.

I got off to a bad start, as he extended his hand apparently expecting me to kiss his ring, but being Protestant I instead shook his hand.  He looked offended, and didn’t bother to extend it to Elizabeth, who he merely glanced at and then ignored. 

I thanked him for the possibility of the land in Medellin and told him it wouldn’t work for us but we appreciated his consideration and looked forward to working closely with the Church in the future on our projects in Colombia and the region.  He said a few words about how there were so many street children and all help was appreciated.

At which point Elizabeth, standing to my side and a step behind me, spoke up, very simply and gently asking him what he thought of the possibility of some sort of special dispensation (she was speaking in Spanish and I didn’t get all the nuance) for people who worked in family planning, or even pharmacists and store-owners so they wouldn’t fear going to hell if they sold condoms or other means of birth control.

The lack of birth control in Colombia, she said, was one of the things driving the epidemic of homeless children who were then taking over entire parts of Bogotá and Medellin.

His face turned red and the muscles bunched around his jaw and neck.

He refused to look at Elizabeth and instead turned to me, pushing his right index finger into my face and pounding his left fist on the arm of his throne, shouting angrily.  I’d not seen somebody become so furious so fast in years.

In English he shouted words to the effect of, “This population explosion is all the fault of women!  It began with Eve, the original deceiver of the first man.  They know when they’re fertile and when they’re not.  They must learn to be chaste and control themselves!”

He was trembling with rage, and Elizabeth and I backed out of his office, saying “Sorry, sorry,” in English and Spanish, as fast as we could.

It’s all about the power.

Recently a Catholic priest here in Portland conducted an actual exorcism to purge the Black Lives Matter and other liberal spirits from parts of downtown where there had been protests around George Floyd’s murder at the hands of police.

As David Crary reported for the AP in an article titled Exorcism: Increasingly frequent, including after US protests:

“In Portland, Oregon, Archbishop Alexander Sample led a procession of more than 200 people to a city park on Oct. 17, offered a prayer, then conducted a Latin exorcism rite intended to purge the community of evil. The event followed more than four months of racial justice protests in Portland, mostly peaceful but sometimes fueling violence and riots.

“On the same day, 600 miles to the south, San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone performed an exorcism ceremony outside a Catholic church in San Rafael, where protesters had earlier toppled a statue of Father Junipero Serra.” (Serra was most famous for torturing Native People to force their conversions to Catholicism.)

As Audrey Clare Farley writes for The New Republic, “Across the country, right-wing Catholic clerics are weaponizing their rites to own the libs.”

It is, of course, their right to say or do anything they want that’s within the law, and exorcisms and rightwing rants from the pulpit fall squarely into the category of free speech.  But that doesn’t mean that you and I must continue to subsidize it.

As President John F Kennedy said: “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.”

President Biden needs to reverse Trump’s executive order and direct the Treasury Department to again enforce the so-called “Johnson Amendment.”  Enough is enough.

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