Monday, October 02, 2006

San Fran Church Fears Support From Right

No matter how much I am exposed to liberal Christianity in the USA, I am still dumbfounded by it. The following, excerpted from an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, is a case in point.

Few were surprised when the Rev. George Regas, the retired rector of the liberal All Saints Episcopal Church here, returned to the pulpit just days before the presidential election in November 2004 and delivered a fiery broadside against the war in Iraq as well as politicians who opposed abortion or anti-poverty programs.

Regas insisted he was not instructing the congregation on how to vote, but he minced no words in identifying the enemy: "conservative politicians with the blessing of the religious right."

The surprise came in what followed.

First, the Internal Revenue Service began investigating whether All Saints, one of the largest Episcopal churches in the country, violated the prohibition against tax-exempt organizations intervening in election campaigns by supporting or opposing candidates. The church, which characterizes Regas' sermon as merely a discussion of moral values, found itself in the middle of a potentially expensive legal battle.

Then something even worse happened, at least in the eyes of some of the church's defenders: Some of the very people Regas excoriated took up the church's cause, saying its plight demonstrated why Congress ought to eliminate restrictions on the political activities of churches and other nonprofit organizations.

"This is absolutely an infringement on free speech in our houses of worship," Rep. Walter Jones Jr., R-N.C., a religious conservative, said.

Jones, who has backed the Iraq war and opposes abortion, accused the IRS of trying to intimidate churches with the investigation - though he says he agrees with none of Regas' positions - and said the simple solution is having Congress pass a bill he has sponsored, the Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act. The bill, which has languished in committee for three years, would remove most of the restrictions on political involvement by the tax-exempt organizations.

Other prominent religious conservatives, such as Richard Land, a senior official with the Southern Baptist Convention, also have supported All Saints.

"I disagree with about 99 percent of what he said in the sermon, but I support his right to say it," said Land, who said he would favor the IRS dropping the political activities prohibition. "The investigation is an unwarranted intrusion on an assembly of believers. Even if you accept the current regulation, the minister did not endorse a candidate."

[…] But many at the church and in the liberal religious community chafe at the prospect of killing outright the law prohibiting direct political activity by churches and other nonprofit organizations. They say it would play into the hands of conservative religious organizations that have explicit political agendas, zealous followers and lots of money.

"We are fighting this battle on the narrow grounds that the sermon did not cross the line," said Bob Long, the senior warden - in effect, the elected head - of All Saints, which has a congregation of about 3,500.

"It's sad that they're picking on us, because we really respect the IRS regulations. It's a wise policy that churches like ours should not endorse candidates, and we don't want the law changed," he said.

Bob Edgar, a retired Democratic representative from Pennsylvania who is general secretary of the National Council of Churches
(That Nobody Goes to Anymore – Ed.), said the investigation of All Saints feels to him like an attempt to scare churches away from expressing moral views on political issues, and he argued that many conservative churches are far more blatant in their efforts to sway voters.

But he was adamant that the members of his organization would fight any erosion of the law banning direct political endorsements by churches.

"We believe in the separation of church and state, and this should not be used to let these groups break that down," Edgar said.

[…] All Saints has long been firm in its support of liberal positions, going back to World War II, when it protested the internment of Japanese Americans. It opposed the Vietnam War, is against the death penalty, and supports abortion rights and same-sex marriage.

In his sermon on Oct. 31, 2004, Regas began by insisting that he was not urging the congregation to vote one way or another. The talk was presented instead as a conversation in which Jesus addressed the presidential candidates, incumbent George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry.

Citing Jesus' teachings, Regas denounced a range of Bush administration policies, especially the Iraq war, which he characterized as an act of terrorism. "The sin at the heart of this war against Iraq is your belief that an American life is of more value than an Iraqi life," he said.

Regas called Bush's plan to build more nuclear warheads morally indefensible, and he blamed Bush's tax cuts for widening the gap between rich and poor.

[…] "Prophetic Christianity has lost its voice," Regas complained.
"The religious right has drowned out everyone else." (Translation: Only the religious left gets to make any claim to prophecy - ed.)

I love it! For decades, the religious left has gotten away with murder in terms of politics. How often, during political campaigns, do you see Democratic candidates speaking from the pulpits of predominately black churches? How many mainline Protestant denominations participate in blatantly political pressure groups favoring abortion and gay rights? How often does the USCCB lobby for specific legislation? None of this was never even considered an issue until conservative churches got involved.

Now Father Regas is prepared to risk his church’s tax status on the defense that a sermon in which Jesus, speaking to George Bush and John Kerry (who just happened to be running for president at the time), denounces the Bush Administration’s policies on Iraq war, nuclear defense, and tax cuts (which happen, just by coincidence, to be opposed by John Kerry) – that such a sermon does not endorse one candidate over the other. That pathetic defense is preferable to allowing the other side the same privileges you have enjoyed for years. These people will drink hemlock, as long as, by doing so, they think they can make conservatives choke it down as well!

Frankly, I think Fr. Regas ought to be able to preach on whatever he wants – and so should anyone else. Let ideas compete in the Public Square – which includes the churches of this land – and may the best ones win.