When I first graduated from seminary and began to preach, I barely noticed the flag that stands by most pulpits in the U.S. If we see a flag on a ship at sea, or on the car of a diplomat, we understand those vehicles are set aside to represent the United States. It did not occur to me that the flag by the pulpit bore the same meaning.
If a Roman emperor required a statue of himself to be placed in an early church, everyone would understand what that statue really meant. The statue would be a reminder that people could worship however they wished, so long as their first loyalty was to the empire. The flag can also stand as a boundary that American preachers are not to cross. We may pray for our troops, but not for our enemy’s. We may pray for healing, but not for health care. We may pray for the poor, but we must never question the capitalist system that makes them poor.
What does it mean when we tell preachers not to be political, but place a flag by the pulpit as though the flag were not itself a political statement? Is the flag not a warning? Does the flag not bear a command? “You shall not speak of any other politics than that of the American Empire. You are not to worship a God who is bigger than your nation. You shall not hold the actions of your nation to a universal standard.”
The flag by the pulpit reminds us that the American Empire and the capitalism for which it now stands, lies in the background of everything the church can do, or even think, so long as nationalism is the context from within which we try to be ethical. Knowing this, who would not take the flag down? We should take down very cross itself, if it ever prevented us from showing the love of Christ to those who are not Christian. There is one universal love to which every other lesser loyalty must submit. We do not love America less, for loving humankind more.
I’m responding here to your mention that we don’t hear public prayers for our enemies in our churches. I think nearly every congregation in which I’ve worshipped regularly has, from time to time in my hearing, prayed for the enemies of our nation. It is not generally an ongoing, regular prayer topic, and, one could say that it’s not that they’ll prevail over us or anything like that. Sometimes it’s that they’ll surrender or convert to our views, but most generally, it’s a prayer for the well being and liberation of their people, whom we usually see as being oppressed, not too different from the way anyone prays for his enemies. Would one have too pray for their victory and our loss to meet your concern? Would it be sufficient to pray that right will prevail, whatever that might be? Usually, it seems to me, that that is either an admission that we don’t really know what that is, probably more true than any of us would like to admit, but it usually also a code that we hope God will have our way to prevail, since we’re sure we know we are much closer to God’s will than they are. Anyway, this idea of praying for enemies is tough, and I don’t think it’s fair to say that our congregations don’t at least try to do that, whether or not they have a flag by the pulpitt. 4/28/14, 08:05 CDT
I didn’t say we don’t pray for our enemies. I said we pray for our troops but not for our enemy’s. I’ve seldom heard churches that did not start with the assumption that we are right and our enemies wrong in any given war. I’m sure we wish them well in some detached spiritual way, but but I’ve not heard many prayers that they be liberated from US. I would say the flag is often a symbol of a spirituality within the national interest. I realize there are other viewpoints, thanks for expressing yours.
Flags are umbrellas for a diverse bunch of different people. They mean different things to different people. People say they love America, regardless whether the are for or against any given war or political direction that this nation takes. People who love and try to protect the land and the nature of this country, who are fighting for peace and justice, are just as proudly flying the star spangled banner as those who are doing their best to exploit the land, pollute it, and make as quick a profit as they can, while reinforcing structures of injustice and inequality. Homeless people would not hesitate wrapping themselves into the American flag if it would keep them warm (even though this might not be proper flag protocol). Remember when after 9/11 all the cars all of a sudden had a US flag, and those who were not wearing the American flag on their sleeves were considered suspicious, not one “of us”? When flags are turned into demonstrations of superiority, into symbols of “God with us” (but not with the enemy), they become ideologies, they are turned into weapons. Flags are ideal tools to unite people to get behind wars and create borders, divide people up into “us” and “them”, friends and enemies. There is not a flag on earth that is not drenched in blood. Do I want that symbol present in my space when I approach the highest, the most sacred, when I am seeking the intimate union of my soul with the creator? I don’t. And I thank Jim for bringing this up and for keeping the flag out of the sanctuary.
Unfortunately, in America, church and state are not separate and the American flag next to the altar makes sense to me. The church gets tax exemptions from the American government in exchange for silence about governmental policies. When church and state have become so intertwined economically and politically, the church is obliged to the state and prohibited by law from speaking positively or negatively about the American government from the pulpit. The church is able to grow its income and holdings without being taxed and the state is prohibited by law from collecting taxes from the church. Thus the government has paid for silence from the church on it’s policies, good or bad. Separation of church and state benefits both the church and the state. Something the signers of our constitution understood.
Thanks for your response. I get your overall point, I think, and I am mostly, if not completely, in agreement with it, but I think the idea of praying for our enemies or adversaries in any form is problematic and unrelated to patriotism or patriotic symbols except to the extent that we accept our government’s alien foes as our own foes. Still, we do pray for them, flag or no flag, in my experience, so I do not think that part of your criticism is accurate. Of course, if we do not accept our government’s enemies as ours, then, we can’t really be said to be praying for our enemies when we pray for those people or entities, and, most of us doing that would still not consider ourselves unpatriotic. We just disagree with our government on some points.
I find the issue of taxing churches vexing. The power to tax is the power to control. Exempting churches from taxation entirely is recognizing that the government does not have power over churches. It is very hard to define religion and, therefore, what constitutes a religious organization. I don’t think churches have to remain silent politically. They may speak freely on any political issue, but they may NOT enter into elections or speak directly for or against any specific official candidates for elections. While elections are politically important, for a major national church to support its candidate could put the that church in control of some aspect of the government. Both of these constraints against which you speak as violating separation of church and state, actually, in my view, are designed to support that separation. 4/29/14, 12:32 CDT
I respectfully disagree. The cost of exemptions for church’s income and property is about $71-billion per year. Currently the IRS is not enforcing the rules already agreed upon by the churches when they file for their IRC Section 501(c)(3) status. Which is why I, as a taxpayer, would like to see either the rules enforced or the churches pay up.
The statistics you provide do not seem to me to address the points I stated with which you say you disagree. Can you quote or accurately state the relevant parts of the 501(c)(3) agreements you cite? Perhaps that would help regarding my assertion regarding what their limits are, though not with what I think the limits should be and why. Regarding the power of taxation, that, for example is what has been used to affect all sorts of things like encouraging smoking reduction, charitable giving, home ownership, research, mineral exploration, technology development, and the list goes on and on. 4/29/14, 14:43 CDT
Exemptions for churches have been around for thousands of years. Precedent, however, should not dictate that these exemptions are inviolate in the US. Here is the wording which I feel is being violated by religious organizations and not being enforced by the IRS.
“Under the Internal Revenue Code, all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity. Violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.” – http://www.irs.gov/Charities-&-Non-Profits/Charitable-Organizations/The-Restriction-of-Political-Campaign-Intervention-by-Section-501%28c%29%283%29-Tax-Exempt-Organizations
Additionally, these tax exemptions force me to support religion through what amounts to a subsidy paid for by US taxpayers, including those of us who are religious and those of us who aren’t. “No church property is taxed and so the infidel and the atheist and the man without religion are taxed to make up the deficit in the public income thus caused.” – Mark Twain.
By supporting all religious institutions with tax exemptions, the government IS supporting religion. “Associate Justice of the US Supreme court, William O. Douglas, in his dissenting opinion in Walz v. Tax Commission of the City of New York, decided May 4, 1970, stated: “If believers are entitled to public financial support, so are nonbelievers. A believer and nonbeliever under the present law are treated differently because of the articles of their faith… I conclude that this tax exemption is unconstitutional.” – ProCon.org.
I do not wish to change your POV and I will not be swayed from mine. I respectfully disagree.
Gra’ma, I’m confused. I didn’t talk about taxes. What is it you disagree with?
Oh, I see, you’re talking to Bob.
Sorry for the confusion Jim. Thanks for allowing Bob and me to exchange POVs on your blog.
Thank you for your research and response on 501(c)(3) and the relevant 1970 Supreme Court case. I can see that I may have taken us somewhat away from Jim’s point by responding to your mention of tax laws, so I first need to acknowledge that. I think his general point is well taken by both of us. To be an effective force in the world in which it resides, the church must not be a subject of the system, whether legally, as you mention in your example of how the church and state play the tax game, or by embracing symbols, such as the nation’s flag in Jim’s example, in blind complicity.
When I saw your comment, however, I went all legal on you and probably really confused the issue because the specificity of tax law, which jumped out at me in your comment seems to take us in a little different direction. The law is not as general as it sounded in the way you related its effect. I think you are right in the effect the 501(c)(3) rule has on churches playing the tax game, but I had to object that the rule was actually as restrictive as you made it sound by relating its effect, as you did appropriately for this context, rather than what it actually is, which I thought was also needed to keep from misrepresenting it. Hence, my response to you to say that the tax exemption was actually required to implement the First Amendment “freedom of religion” clause and that the 501(c)(3) rule might also be needed for a similar purpose. You disagreed with me without really addressing my points on that, but you provided some statistics that, I think, are being used mostly by those who dislike churches or organized religion and really think organized religion should not be Constitutionally specially protected from government influence as it is in the First Amendment. The funny thing is that opponents of organized religion have twisted the argument to make it sound like their ideas support separation of church and state, the opposite of what I believe their ideas actually do. Hence, the issue morphed into a debate taken up by that 1970 Supreme Court case you were able to cite for me regarding taxation and separation of church and state as required by the “freedom of religion” clause of the First Amendment.
As I understand things, and as I recall being taught in school, taxes are applied to those who are subject to the state. We don’t pay taxes to England, for example, because we are not subject to the British government. To pay taxes is to acknowledge the authority, whether we agree with it or not, of the one to whom the taxes are paid. To exact taxes is to express authority over those from whom taxes are exacted. Perhaps the most innovative idea in The U. S. Constitution is the separation of church and state. That had never been done before, as I understand it, and, in order for that to be realized, the power of the state to tax the church had to be proscribed, lest the government control religion and religious expression. To support your opinion to the contrary of mine, you cite a minority Supreme Court opinion, which means, apparently, that there’s a majority opinion of the U. S. Supreme Court that disagreed with Justice Douglas on this matter, and that opinion has yet to be overturned. I think I may actually have been taking my required college political science class when this case was being adjudicated, so I do remember some of the politics swirling around the case at the time. I think Madeline Murray O’Hare was pretty active politically then, and she was not so much concerned about separation of church and state as destruction of church and religion altogether.
Your quote of the 501(c)(3) rule is pretty much as I recall it, and as I summarized it above, I think. I have been visiting lots of churches over the past couple of years, and I have been on the finance committee of a congregation for several years in the past decade, and my experiences have been that most clergy and church leaders are well aware of this requirement and are carefully following it. They are allowed to address issues all they want. They just can’t endorse and promote official candidates (specific persons) in public elections. I’m not sure whether this applies only to federal elections or to all elections, but, to be safe, I think most church leaders shy away from endorsing candidates in elections at any level. In fact, to be safe, many are playing the tax game you described in your original response to Jim. I gave you my opinion above of why this may have to be an acceptable part of what’s needed to ensure separation of church and state. I’m not completely comfortable with even my own attempted explanation, because I think that it is a violation of free speech, especially if free speech protection is applied to other corporate entities. I am not sure that this constraint doesn’t also violate the separation of church and state by enabling the federal government to tax an organization otherwise acknowledged to be a church. I believe that, if the IRS were to go after churches for violation of this 501(c)(3) provision, there would be fairly solid grounds under the both the “freedom of religion” and the “freedom of speech” clauses of the First Amendment to overturn the rule. Perhaps that’s a reason you may not be seeing it enforced as you might like. I haven’t noticed any violations, however, in my wanderings or my work with churches, so I’m wondering whether you have some cases in mind that seem like good candidates for IRS action, remembering that the church has to have clearly spoken for or against particular candidates for public elections, not just spoken out strongly on issues that may be important positions candidates hold and on which they may be actively campaigning. I wouldn’t doubt that you may be able to find some, but I would doubt that you can find anywhere near the number and magnitude of violations that would make much of a dent in the total “cost” you quoted of the 501(c)(3) exemption. Hence, prosecuting those offenders may not be very effective way to get what you seem to want, anyway. 4/30/14, 21:21 CDT
You might want to read this article: http://business.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/06/21/12343407-activist-churches-bait-irs-but-agency-wont-bite-so-far. It would seem that some churches are “mostly” in compliance but some are in “full-out” disregard of the “agreed upon” rules. And some are in full-revolt against the restrictions. I WANT fairness. “Play by the rules” fairness. This part of the rules of the 501(c)(3) “…absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office…” seems to be where I have a real problem with pastors/clergy, who are in positions of power and influence, who bend, stretch, or break the rules. (Also, I have to note that our electorate has in many instances abdicated their responsibilities to be informed voters and regularly get their political (mis)information every Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday at their places of worship.) When pastors/clergy take advantage of their flock’s political apathy and use their pulpits to sway political opinion “directly or indirectly” they are in violation of the “rules” and should be obliged to relinquish their exemptions. I don’t have an agenda. I’m just tired of playing by the rules when others aren’t. Thank you for your thoughtful reply. It has given me some “food for thought” about how you and others see the constitution as it relates to religion. In full disclosure, I grew up Catholic and have been agnostic since I was 17 yrs. old.
That’s a good article. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. I tend to lean the other way from you on that issue. I think proper separation of church and state requires that the IRS back off, and, from the article, the IRS does realize how problematic its position is, as I speculated above would be the case. Issues and candidates are not the same thing, though I grant that it can be hard to separate them in campaigns. Churches have every right and duty to speak out on issues, unfettered. I think they should be able to speak out on candidates, too, and that doing so should not in any way jeopardize their being defined as a church with exemption from taxation if they meet the required criteria for being a church in every other way.
I think I understand some of your concern for fairness, too. While churches and church contributions cannot be taxed, they do receive the same services from the government paid for by the taxes on others as all other taxable organizations. Why shouldn’t they at least pay for those services? Might there not be a way to bill those services at cost to churches so that they are not “freeloaders” on the system? On the other hand, much of our society has appreciated the charitable work that churches do, sometimes even at considerable expense to themselves, for the communities they serve, just as many other charitable organizations do. Churches provide emergency shelters in disasters for free, for example. They run orphan homes and battered women shelters and homeless shelters and hospitals and schools and free clinics and ESL programs and sr. care programs, and food pantries, and on and on. So maybe they’re not exactly freeloaders. Other charitable organizations don’t pay taxes either. Generally, we want to encourage charity, so we’ve exempted them. That’s an example of the control taxation exerts on us. Maybe that can be seen as a way churches pay for the government services they use. Nobody’s keeping records, so who knows whose getting the better end of the deal. Apparently, those who dislike churches think the churches don’t carry their weight in this society, while those who do appreciate them would argue that they more than carry their weight. 5/1/14, 15:07 CDT