Between the mid to late 1960s — at the height of the Vietnam War that was being waged in Southeast Asia — the late, great heavyweight boxer Muhammad Ali (formerly Cassius Clay), was convicted and imprisoned for not complying with the military draft. He refused induction into the U.S. Army on the basis of being a “conscientious objector” on religious grounds. His claim was rejected by the draft board. Upon appeal, his conviction was overturned by the United States Supreme Court and he was consequently released from incarceration.
Having registered as non-profits in order to receive tax exemptions from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), it has been common practice for many U.S. church organizations to break the law. At issue is the Internal Revenue Code, Section 501 (3). This law prohibits all non-profit organizations — including churches, from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of, or in opposition to any candidate for elective public office. Like Ali, on this score, they tend to behave as if they are “conscientious objectors”.
But, are they?
The fact that the late President Ronald Reagan refused to back the IRS in a case that it brought against a Christian educational institution on the grounds of segregation — which also violates the law — did not make the actions of that institution right. The Supreme Court sided with the IRS in that case. Additionally, the fact that President Donald Trump’s Administration supported churches in breaking this law does not make any and all such violations at the time justified. In fact, some churches have used the monies retained through tax exemptions for not only organizing voting blocks, but for subsidizing racist, segregation agendas.
In 2018, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted to make it harder for the Government to punish churches that get involved in politics. Lawmakers approved legislation barring the IRS from revoking the tax-exempt status of churches that back political candidates unless it is specifically approved by the commissioner of the agency. The provision amounts to a backdoor around the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits non-profits from getting involved in political campaign activities.
Non-profits denounced the measure, noting it came just a few days after the Treasury Department’s announcement that it was dropping the requirement for most charitable organizations to disclose their big donors to the IRS. Was the action taken by Congress one that was in defence of egalitarian principles, or one that was initiated out of concern or their very own political interests?
If churches don’t complain against the alleged unconstitutionality of this law on the basis of an infringement on their right of “free speech”, they argue against it on the grounds of “religious discrimination”. It is interesting to note how the U.S. Constitution is drafted into this line of reasoning, considering that the law includes not just religious institutions but also hospitals and universities. In fact, ministers are free to speak their minds on political issues, as private citizens, outside of the pulpit. So, then, is their angst against the tax man a matter of conscience or one of sheer convenience?
There are religious entities that toe the line, expressing disagreement with the hubris of leadership in entities that routinely violate the law. They have recognized the dangers of mixing religion with politics in a democracy that is largely pluralistic in nature. Non-profits — religious entities among them — are not compelled to seek tax exemption status from the IRS. It is a wholly voluntary affair for which one must apply. One could argue that such church organizations want to have it both ways and that the issue is not about spirituality, morality or ethics, but rather power and money. Is that the case?
Whereas Ali’s choices were between risking his life in a questionable war thousands of miles away, and the austerity of a penal institution, today’s evangelicals are not so constrained. They can sing the melancholic dirges of victims — with wailing and a torrent of tears — but those do not make them so. They are yet to present credible arguments against the law in question.
And, finally, they are still silent in respect to abiding by the following passage of Scripture: “Put them in mind to be subject to principalities and powers, to obey magistrates, to be ready to every good work, to speak evil of no man, to be no brawlers, but gentle, shewing all meekness unto all men.”