Politics and Church Tax Exemptions

April 30th, 2010 · 1 Comment · Uncategorized

By Denise Tessier

One of the better features the Albuquerque Journal instituted in recent years, in my view, is the reporter’s “Politics Notebook” that appears with bylines by Sean Olson, Dan McKay, Dan Boyd or Michael Coleman. Similarly, during the legislative session, John Robertson’s daily “At the Roundhouse” blog, reprinted in the paper Journal, provided not only insight into the Legislature, but an interesting look at the evolution taking place as the Journal wove an online product into the print platform.

I especially appreciated Sean Olson’s informative snippet in Wednesday’s “Politics Notebook,” which revealed that gubernatorial candidate Allen Weh had spoken four times at the Calvary megachurch in Albuquerque. (It’s the last section of a “Notebook” that leads off with the visit by Karl Rove.)

According to Olson’s stats on Calvary, we’re talking a potential audience of 14,000 congregants for Weh’s comments. That’s more than the individual populations of most of New Mexico cities.

If this had run as a separate article, rather than one-third of a “Politics Notebook”, it would appear that the Journal might be crusading (if you’ll excuse that expression), bringing attention to what some might consider church involvement in politics.

Now we’re getting into legal territory, but this is a story I would love to see tackled at some point in depth. Such a story would explain the history of the special status churches enjoy  (under a 1964 Lyndon Johnson amendment in the Senate, churches agreed to refrain from getting political in order to get the tax status). It would also explore how that exemption likely has allowed them to grow into megachurches in the first place, what appears to be a lack of enforcement of that law, and whether megachurch businesses unfairly compete with local retailers.

Churches try to straddle the line by saying they do not endorse candidates. Olson quotes Weh making such assertions when talking about his minute-long speeches at four separate services over a weekend:

Weh said his speeches did not amount to an endorsement of his campaign by church leaders.

“My pastor simply felt it was appropriate for the congregation to hear me tell them why I was running for governor and for them to offer their prayers for my journey,” Weh said.

Offer prayers for his journey? What journey would that be? Running for governor, of course. So, the pastor thinks it’s appropriate for congregants to pray for Weh in his quest for governor – yet, that’s not an endorsement.

Perhaps Calvary should get the other candidates in for prayer assists, lest the church be vulnerable to allegations of bias. But if no one’s enforcing, why bother?

Two years ago, tax agents kept their eyes on churches nationwide as some goaded authorities by threatening to deliver sermons that fell just short of endorsements. They called it the Pulpit Initiative – an effort by the conservative Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), based in Arizona and founded by James Dobson and Focus on the Family in “defense of family values .” ADF at the time encouraged pastors to pointedly endorse political candidates, and in turn, ADF promised to provide participating churches with attorneys who would defend all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court what ADF says is the pastors’ First Amendment right to “speak freely.” In essence, they dared the feds to try to wrest tax-exempt status from them for daring to become politically active. (Complaints were filed after the initiative, but it’s difficult to determine without further research the outcome of those filings.)

The unholy alliance between a certain brand of politics and a number of megachurches and religious organizations becomes more brazen each year, as that brand taps into what are religious, rather than governmental issues (i.e., abortion, homosexuality) to form its political platform.

Another aspect to cover: Has it become a political strategy for a candidate to belong to a megachurch, considering the potential for thousands of potential votes? I’m not saying this is what Weh has done because, according to Olson, Weh’s been a member of Calvary 13 years. But it’s not beyond the realm of possibility in some campaigns.

An investigation into the arguable lack of tax exempt enforcement might also reveal the revenues that might be raised for state and local budgets if politically involved churches were taxed. Mega-churches are multi-million-dollar enterprises: Calvary has studio facilities, radio broadcasting capability, a skatepark, and a Christian gift and book shop.

This is a topic that hasn’t been addressed head-on but deserves full reportage and investigative treatment. In fact, Olson deserves kudos for getting the fact that Weh appeared at Calvary into the Journal at all.

Thankfully, Olson has let in a bit of light on this thorny subject.

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One Comment so far ↓

  • Carol

    Yes, separation of church and state would be a good topic for an in-depth report. One might want to take a closer look at George W. Bush’s Faith Based Initiative.

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