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Sarah Palin and Reasons Why Churches Should Not Have Tax Exempt Status

September 4, 2008

In the days since Sarah Palin emerged as the Republican VP candidate, droves of artifacts from her past have surfaced.  Apparently she’s a former beauty pageant contestant, sportscaster, PTA supporter, small town mayor, avowed hockey mom, and (unfortunately) a member of an Assemblies of God church.

A video from Wasilla Assembly of God in Alaska that is circulating around the Internet has caused quite a stir, much deserved.  Returning to the church where she attended for years, Palin stands up in the video and grandstands her exploitative agendas in the name of faith and divine will.  She proclaims that Alaska is the richest state in the union in terms of natural resources, and because of this, “God’s will has to be done in unifying people and companies to get [a] gas line built.”  “Pray for that,” she adds.  Apparently, God has sanctioned our nation’s bad habit of rifling earth’s bowels to extract natural resources, just because we’d like to have them.

Worse, Palin capitalized on her pulpit time to address occupation in Iraq.  She calls our involvement in Iraq a divinely ordained enterprise and encourages the congregants of Wasilla Assembly of God to “pray for our military men and women who are striving to do what is right [and] also, for this country, that our leaders, our national leaders, are sending [U.S. soldiers] out on a task that is from God.”  This is a jeremiad that endorses violence and imperial conquest in the name of Christian faith.  Her talk, though, is so far from the ethic of Christ that it’s impossible to reconcile her views with what actually appears in the Gospels.  The central message of the Gospels, the Kingdom of God, signifies an established order that is not of this world, yet at the same time not “otherworldly.”  It is a radical change of the way things are on earth, politically and socially, with the realization that God’s work on earth is in an “already, but not yet” state of fruition.  Thus, the Christian should not tie his or her faith to earthly kingdoms in any way, especially by imagining that the antics of the United States’ kingdom is a manifestation of God’s imminent victory over evil.

As troubling as this Palin video is, I am not shocked by it, mainly because I’ve attended numerous churches in the past where ministers and guest speakers make similar claims from the pulpit.  The Palin video is just one more reminder that evangelicalism in the United States has developed into a network of non-profit, tax exempt advocates for the right-wing neoconservative agenda, a network that endorses wars of aggression and explains away our mandate to seek social justice on this earth.

In fact, we can directly attribute George W. Bush’s re-election to the advocacy evangelical churches did in the days leading up to the 2004 election.  The most organized “whisper campaign” of that fall mobilized many pastors, who preached sermons dealing with the “crisis” facing our country that Sunday before the election.  Many evangelicals listened to rhetoric that resembles what Wasilla’s pastor told his flock:  to vote for John Kerry is to imperil one’s salvation.  Christians must “vote righteously.”  I was told by a worship leader in my church that year that we should vote to “maintain the standard of purity” in the White House, since the White House is, after all, white  (I promise I’m not making this up).  In the aftermath of Bush’s second victory in 2004, when Democrats realized they’d been fleeced by the evangelical right, a noble wave of “God is not a Republican or a Democrat” banter materialized, but soon fizzled out.

The United States claims freedom of worship and separation between church and state as two of the things that make it the greatest nation in the world.  Yet, the McCain-Palin ticket should serve as a clear sign that we are perilously close to becoming a theocratic nation.  The bottom line is that the separation between church and state is a cultural myth.  Churches should no longer benefit from tax exemptions, nor should they maintain the facade that they are apolitical (maybe “nonpartisan” is a better word here, because I do think that churches must be political, and this is exactly why they should not get tax credits).

I’ve already made the case for why right-wing evangelical churches shouldn’t be tax exempt–i.e., because they don’t actually remain non-partisan.  However, there’s a problem with the “left-leaning” strand of Christianity benefiting from the government as well.  Last spring I cringed when my own church convinced a local corporation to “gift” a piece of property to it.  My church got a cheap lot on which to expand its territory, and the corporation got a kickback from the government to reward it for its “generosity.”  This might seem benign, I know, but I still am not satisfied by the underhanded process of taking subsidies from the government, a process from which most churches benefit.  This transaction both implicates my church in the kingdom of the United States and it handcuffs it, rendering it unable to seek social justice through direct exhortation and proclamation at its pulpit.  I feel that since evangelical ministers are parlaying their theological convictions into political commentary, delivered from the pulpit, there’s no reason why more progressive pastors shouldn’t do the same thing.  If one is convinced that the ethic of Christ demands that we castigate the warmongering John McCain in church, we should do it (and actually name his name, and actually encourage people not to vote for him).

Another related instance.  We all remember the infamous Jeremiah Wright episode, in which people all across the country were offended by the Reverend’s condemnation of American foreign and social policy, capitulated by his exclamation, “God damn America!”  A bevy of media outlets quickly brought in seminarians, liberation theologians, and biblical scholars to confirm that Wright’s message should be situated in the Old Testament context of prophetic indictment, which is avowedly political and inextricably ties all political events to God’s sovereignty.  Some insisted that we must interpret Wright in the context of black liberation theology, and still others understood the controversy as a result of the United States’ deeply-segregated faith communities.  Most white Christians, mainline Protestants, evangelicals, or whatever, are not familiar with the genre of Wright’s indictment, these pundits said, because they’ve never been to a church where such talk passes for preaching.

My point in recalling this instance is to remind us that “conservative” and “liberal” people explicitly peddle their respective “political” agendas in church, and they do it because they see an undeniable connection between faith practice and political action.  I recognize that the tension I’m drawing out here is a central dilemma for Christians who espouse a “Kingdom of God” theology.  When is it theologically unacceptable to merge faith and “political action” (if it ever is)?  Should allegiance to a national identity have any place in Christian worship?  Are Christians to engage in earthly political systems, or are they to withdraw and wait for God’s final restoration of peace on earth?  Are there right ways and wrong ways for private worship communities to implicate themselves in political structures?

I think there are, and I’m almost certain that removing the government’s financial support of organized worship communities could be a step toward a more positive synergy of faith and political involvement.  Churches should be places where people are convinced that they need to seek justice through political action.  “Political” things, like debates, town hall meetings, letter writing, campaigning, and dialogue, should take place in the church and should be endorsed by the church.  Even though it was spurious in execution, I commend Rick Warren for inviting Obama and McCain to the Saddleback Church.  It’s certainly the right place for political discussion.

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3 Comments
  1. Jake permalink

    Andrew- You raise some good points here. I am not sure about whether or not churches should have tax exempt status, though I would point out a few things. The first is that some churches would not be able to sustain themselves if they had to pay taxes like “for profit” institutions. In cases where churches could sustain themselves and bear the burden of taxation, it would simply mean that more money would go to the government (which sadly these days means the war coffer) and less would go to whatever constructive ministries the church is participating in.

    But that does not really address the heart of the matter that concerns you here. I share some of the same concerns that you have about McCain–concerns that I believe every Christian should have. The problem that I would have with inviting the kind of explicitly political dialogue into the church is that with it would come the divisiveness that has become a staple tool of political campaign architects like Karl Rove. This has no place in the church for a variety of reasons. Maybe the most important is that I do not believe that progressive churches should be co-opted by a political party in the same way that many “conservative” churches have. If that happens, progressive churches will weaken their potential for prophetic critique. From where we stand today, it is clear that much of that prophetic critique should be aimed at warmongering John McCain. Tomorrow it might be different; we may need to register a critique of Obama or someone else.

    The point is that I am less concerned to call out the warmongering John McCain by name from the pulpit than I am with creating the kind of community that will be able to recognize that his policies are problematic from a Christian perspective. As a preacher, I aim to locate my congregation in the Christ narrative in which there is no role for things like sacrificing human lives for oil or favoring the rich at the expense of the poor and so on. When this works as it should, believers will hear McCain and others implicate themselves every time they speak about their policies. This is more powerful and effective, I think, than naming McCain from the pulpit.

  2. Andrew, if church’s really were “apolitical” in action and word, would you have a problem with them having tax exempt status? What if they really did keep their overt political opinions to themselves when it came to public speaking? Churches are the largest contributors to many humanitarian aid organizations, and churches themselves are often organizers of local charity efforts. Further, when a member gives a tithe to the church, that money has already been taxed. Why should it be taxed again when given to a charitable institution?

    I, too, have a MAJOR problem with the muddying of the line between church and state: Especially in what is said from the pulpit by spiritually influential people. Using a position of spiritual authority to per-sway someone under that authority is a manipulation of power. That type of wrong reeks to high heaven. However taking away a church’s tax exempt status would not help that institution give more to humanitarian aid and community aid in monetary form. The church is then less active in the grace of helping “the other” outside of their circle. How does society benefit from that? You want the government to be responsible for ALL distribution of charity? Is it that churches aren’t to be trusted to choose appropriate recipients of their charity funds?

    PS I really enjoyed this piece though!

  3. Jo: While many churches do support humanitarian aid, the majority of them use almost all of their budgets to sustain themselves. It makes it hard to justify the free handouts from the government.

    I think you misunderstood the main point of my post though. I think that churches should be expressly political. The message of Christ demands that we seek justice on earth vis-a-vis direct action into the political structures of this world. This is different than entering into an uncomfortable collaboration with the status quo.

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