Clerical Liberals: Free Speech For Us, But Not For Religious Conservatives
(10-02) 04:00 PDT Pasadena -- 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.So what we have here is a heartening example of people willing to reach across ideological lines to help protect free expression, right?
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.”
Liberals didn’t see it that way.
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.This is the rhetoric of clerical liberals. People on the other side have “explicit political agendas.” But the liberals don’t have any “political agendas.” They are just being “prophetic.”
“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.So Edgar, head of the very liberal National Council of Churches, doesn’t like conservative churches that “are far more blatant in their efforts to sway voters.”
“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, 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.
But just how blatant was Rev. George Regas?
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.Not blatant at all, eh?
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.
“All of that would break Jesus’ heart,” he said.
“Prophetic Christianity has lost its voice,” Regas complained. “The religious right has drowned out everyone else.”
Jesus had advice for people like this. “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? . . . You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”
What the clerical liberals want is simple: they want to be free to engage in politics whenever they want, but they want the IRS to come down hard on conservatives who engage in politics.
Religious conservatives, being both more tolerant and more intellectually honest, are happy to make common cause for religious freedom.