I went to Orange County this Sunday to see if a church would deliberately jeopardize its tax-exempt status by endorsing or disparaging a person seeking elective office. It most certainly did. If we lived in a civil society, that church would be gone or the Supreme Court would have overruled the Internal Revenue Service.
But why do I have this nagging suspicion that no matter what happens, the same toxic superfund site will still occupy 6801 Western Avenue, Buena Park, California, many years from now? It’s easy to explain, but first, let me set the stage.
A Simple Suburban Church
The scene: First Southern Baptist Church of Buena Park, Pastor Wylie Drake, parson presiding. Just up the street from Knott's Berry Farm's thrill rides. A neat, one-story, V-shaped compound, with the sanctuary comprising one side of the V and what may be a fellowship hall comprising the other. Pastor Wylie had previously tangled with the IRS over another endorsement, but wriggled off the hook because, he argued, he had only endorsed a candidate in his personal capacity, not from the pulpit.
Not to get too technical, but so-called Section 501(c)(3) organizations, including churches and other nonprofit organizations, don't have to pay taxes themselves, and money donated to them by others can be deducted from the individual's pre-tax income. But there is one big exception: a 501(c)(3) cannot endorse or disparage by name a person seeking elective office. It’s fine for them to promote or oppose an issue or a political position, even where everyone knows that Candidate A supports the position or issue and Candidate B doesn't. And the minister or leader of the 501(c)(3) can endorse a candidate, so long as it is not done in the name of an organization.
Now, as a practical matter, preachers have been making their preferences known for as long as we have had 501(c)(3) organizations, but they have to do it with a wink and a nod. That's how Pastor Wylie avoided sanctions the last time. But something called the Alliance Defense Fund has entered the picture. Who knows where the money comes from, but the ADF apparently wants to provoke a head-on confrontation with the IRS and supposedly has promised churches that if they take on the IRS, the ADF will defend them.
It’s not clear what the ADF will do if they don't prevail and a church loses its tax-exempt status, but Pastor Wylie, a self-described media-friendly person, has decided that his church would be one of the test churches nationwide that would endorse a candidate from the pulpit on September 28, 2008.
Challenging the IRS
I was there to watch it. So was the media. Television news crews were already set up in the sanctuary when I got there 20 minutes early. The print media was interviewing outside. Pastor Wylie was effusively welcoming the media. The stage was set for the big show. In a sanctuary that probably seats 250, there appeared to be about 40 parishioners and perhaps 15 or 20 media. My count was sort of arbitrary. I counted everybody in the sanctuary who shouted "Amen" or "Praise Jesus" when Pastor Wylie delivered a zinger as a parishioner Everybody else I figured was media.
And deliver zingers he did. Even though every second paragraph began with ''I'm angry about...", it took a little while for him really to get rolling. The gist of the early sermon was that it was preachers who had led a lot of the American social revolution, and Pastor Wylie was damn sure he didn't want to get shut out of the action by the IRS. Why, he said, if it wasn't for preachers, slaves would never have won their freedom. And "you ladies" wouldn't even have had the right to vote if it had not been for the preachers. And it was preachers like Southern Baptist Martin Luther King who lead the Civil Rights revolution, said Pastor Wylie -- the pinkest little Southern Baptist preacher you've ever seen. And you know, I said to myself, he's right!
But he didn't say anything about what denomination those preachers called home. And it may be a little unchristian of me to say it, but I had a really, really hard time seeing Pastor Wylie leading the defense of the truly oppressed and marginalized people of the world. But no matter; these were only the practice swings.
It wasn't until we heard about the "queers" who threaten Pastor Wylie's flock that his angry juices really kicked in. Those juices were like straight corn whiskey, unaged and recently dribbled from the leaded old radiator far back in the mountains, and there wasn't any dilution with the milk of human kindness. And I'm pretty sure that readers have heard it all before, so I don't need to repeat what he said. Suffice it to say, he's much in favor of Proposition 8.
But he's still nowhere toward getting his tax-exemption yanked. Why, even some of the law-abiding churches I know about sometimes whisper every now and then that Proposition 8 should be defeated. He's 30 minutes into a sermon and still not getting to what I came to hear. But pretty soon now, it slithers into the sermon -- all three words of the antichrist's name.
Barack HusSEIN Obama
I still can't figure out how to sneer all seven syllables as smoothly as he did, but I assume that he's had a speech coach help him. And he wants us to know why he could never support Barack HusSEIN Obama. Why, Barack HusSEIN Obama supports abortion. More than that, if an aborted baby winds up being born alive, Barack HusSEIN Obama believes that the baby should be left to die on the table. And did you know that Barack HusSEIN Obama wants to teach our children how to sodomize each other. No Christian person could ever vote for Barack HusSEIN Obama and escape the well-deserved fires of hell. There was more but, well, you get the picture.
Not that John McCain was much better. Even though about his only redeeming quality is that he chose Sarah Palin as his running mate, a Christian could hold his nose and vote for him. But the country is not going to be cleansed of its wickedness until Sarah Palin is president or the man Pastor Wylie really supports, Alan Keyes, wins the presidency.
And, oh, did you know who will be President Keyes’ vice president? Well, it’s none other than Pastor Wylie. You couldn't tell whether this was said as a jest or the truth, but the fulsome praise for a real Christian man, Alan Keyes, was not stinted. And if Alan Keyes is rejected by the sodomites, then Sarah will surely clean their clocks. I think John McCain could use a competent food taster; I'd personally prefer Joe Lieberman.
Not a Single “Amen”
Well, now, I'll tell you, the mention of the name Alan Keyes was electric, except that only the media was electrified. The video and still cameras rushed Pastor Wylie, apparently trying to get close enough to capture each nostril on split screen. The parishioners, though, remained rooted to their seats, not a single "Amen" or "Praise Jesus” escaping their lips One parishioner just ahead of me pulled out a delicate hanky and gave a tiny toot. I'm not so sure that the anti-racist/anti-oppressive/multicultural schtick has gained much ground in the First Southern Baptist Church of Buena Park.
And then, the day having been accomplished according to the gospel of Pastor Wylie, the sermon limped to a close. The altar call, accompanied by a solo aria from page 298 of the hymnal, was sparsely attended until a discreet plea from Pastor Wylie that the media was watching, prompted the second and third parishioner to come forth. The collection was taken, after which the two brass plates with folded bills -- yes, I contributed - were deposited upon the altar.
Quick as a wink. Pastor Wylie called forth his son, the Assistant Pastor, to say a few brief words while Pastor Wylie scuttled into his adjacent study with the collection plates. The swag having been counted, Pastor Wylie reappeared and the Assistant Pastor hurriedly wrapped up his remarks. Pastor Wylie pronounced the benediction. Special words of blessing were bestowed on the media and an invitation for them to visit with him in his study, and we all filed out.
Pastor Wylie has defied the soul-destroying IRS. The theses have been nailed to the door. Religious freedom to say your tax-exempt piece has been defended. It may be a small church, but there are some among them who love it. Pastor Wylie's dream to be remembered right along with William Lloyd Garrison, Susan B. Anthony, and Martin Luther King is alive. And not only that. he is definitely going to heaven, for Pastor Wylie told us so. He knows it, Praise Jesus. There is no doubt. That little blurb in the Ten Guidelines about not bearing false witness against thy neighbor pales into insignificance when you are saved. Just like those IRS guidelines.
And why will the tax exemption remain? Well, it may not remain for this church, but it's like cockroaches. You sterilize your cabinets until you drop with exhaustion. You discard every speck of foodstuff in the house. You call in the exterminators and they tent your house. And the minute you heave a sigh of satisfaction at finally cleansing your property, one of the little buggers walks to the middle of your kitchen table, smiles sweetly, and raises its middle tentacle. You can't get rid of them all.
John Blue is an old lawyer who has lived in Pasadena, California, for many years and who occasionally writes something useful.