Trying to decide just what the First Amendment to the Constitution implies with the words, Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, has kept the Supreme Court in a continual dither. The substance is clear: the United States will not have an official religion. The church is, therefore, protected from control by the government, and the government is protected from control by the church. But the devil is in the details. On one hand there are those religionists who insist that the nation’s founders were only trying to keep us from replicating England’s official church, but this never implied that we were not a Christian people. At the other extreme are those who want no mention of any religious perspective in national affairs. The legislative swamp between these two islands is fraught with alligators. Obviously this means that churches may not endorse candidates or put money in any election. This prohibition applies not only to churches but also to all not-for-profit organizations with a 501(c)(3) designation.
Obviously big money is always looking for loopholes in restrictive laws, and the Supreme Court in its infamous Citizens United decision provided one big enough through which to float a battleship. It allowed political contributions from both Super Pacs and “charities” operating under a 501(c)(4) designation.
A 501(c)(4) is defined as a civil organization operated exclusively for the promotion of social welfare, charitable, educational and recreational purposes. But! And let me quote from the way the law has been interpreted, and the loophole it opens:
501(c)(4) organizations may inform the public on controversial subjects and attempt to influence legislation relevant to its program] and, unlike 501(c)(3) organizations, they may also participate in political campaigns and elections, as long as its primary activity is the promotion of social welfare. The tax exemption for 501(c)(4) organizations applies to most of their operations.
A church cannot have a 501(c)(4) designation, but a politically motivated organization just outside ecclesial control can. All the group has to do is claim to be a social service body. It can therefore give a certain percentage of its income to political campaigns. And it never needs to report the source of those funds.
So if a quasi-religious body wants to be financially involved in a political matter it must either develop its own 501(c)(4) or be co-opted by a secular body with one.
In the 2012 campaign 310 million dollars entered the political arena from these “social service” groups. Of that money, almost 90% came from right-wing sources. Karl Rove’s “American Crossroads,” for instance, contributed 70 million dollars to conservative causes. And the list goes on. Clearly the American right-wing is sustained at least in part by conservative Christians. How much so-called Christian money flowed into the campaign is unclear, but certainly it was substantial. At the very least these right wing causes were doing the bidding of conservative religion.
These conservative groups finally got the attention of the IRS. Did it give the same attention to liberal bodies? Probably not, and that generated the firestorm. But five years ago All Saints Church in Pasadena was assailed by the IRS because someone preached a sermon in which he took a liberal position on the Iraqi war.
So the question is: should the progressive wing of American religion be clever enough to financially support legitimate left-leaning 501(c)(4)s? While there may be that possibility, the issue is not the freedom of the church or religiously motivated persons to take positions that have political motives, but a much larger matter.
Perhaps the real problem is the massive infusion of big bucks into politics. The Citizens United decision is largely responsible for this financial avalanche authorizing both the Super Pacs and the 501(c)(4)s. Until that decision is overturned either by legislation or by a Constitutional amendment, American elections will be bought and paid for. Until then, I believe liberal religious institutions should refuse to wade in that multi-million dollar quagmire.
Even while avoiding the deception found in the 501(c)(4) loophole, church bodies and church people have not only the right, but also the responsibility to speak clearly about issues which they believe flow from their faith. I hold that liberal religion has been derelict in having almost abandoned the political field to more conservative Christians. There are issues before the public which are critical to humanwell-being, and we withdraw from clearly articulating our position at the peril of the dehumanization of millions of our fellow citizens, and the degradation of the environment.