Roundtable: IRS and Churches, Obama Slams Lawmakers
ED GORDON, host:
This is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon. On today's Roundtable, Obama says Capitol Hill is too safe, and NBA hall of famer Charles Barkley may be setting his sights on the governor's office in Alabama.
Joining us from the NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C., Republican Strategist Tara Setmayer, and Yvonne Bynoe, author of the book, Stand and Deliver: Political Activism, Leadership and Hip-Hop Culture. Also with us, Nat Irvin, professor of future studies at Wake Forest University. He joins us from member station WFDD in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
All right, folks, before we get into Mr. Obama and Mr. Barkley, we want to talk about what the IRS has done. And that is issuing warnings to churches and nonprofit organizations that improper campaigning in the upcoming political season, as we are close to it, could in fact endanger their tax-exempt status.
Now we've been hearing a lot of about and talking a lot about the situation with the NAACP and the IRS. But this stems mostly in terms of the headline from an All Saints Church in Pasadena. It's being reviewed and the Episcopal Church's tax-exempt status is being reviewed because a priest criticized the Iraqi War shortly before the 2004 presidential election.
Here's what's interesting, Yvonne. The idea that now the IRS is suggesting you can't from the pulpit even criticize politically groups, organizations, administrations, et cetera, versus touting a particular candidate, bringing one man rather than the other. That does seem a bit extreme.
Ms. YVONNE BYNOE (Author, Stand and Deliver: Political Activism, Leadership and Hip-Hop Culture): Well, I think that anyone who is familiar with the nonprofit laws knows that part of you receiving that tax-exempt status is that you are not partisan, that you're not engaged in any partisan activities. Be that of soliciting funds, advocating for a particular candidate, a party, and on the other part of the equation, denouncing a particular party or candidate.
I think what needs to be done is that it needs to be clearer for these institutions what that really means. I have read these laws myself and, to me, they can be somewhat murky. Depending on how long an institution has had their tax-exempt status, does not mean that - it could mean that the current people in charge may not even know what that's about.
So I'm not totally opposed to the IRS enforcing this. But I think people who are being supervised should have some clearer idea of what is and what isn't. And I think that we have to be clear, draw the lines. If you are accepting this tax-exempt status, if you are understanding and aware of what that means, then I think you have to adhere to it.
Freedom of speech means that you are going to then decline that and then you can say whatever you want to from the pulpit. But you can't, you know, eat the king's meat and then, you know, denounce the king. It just doesn't work that way.
GORDON: Now, Nat, clearly there are going to be churches and organizations who will simply say that it is unfair to assume that we cannot talk about a war versus an administration, that they will find ways to separate the two.
Professor NAT IRVIN (Professor of Future Studies, Wake Forest University): I tell you what, Ed. Good luck to the IRS trying to find the right balance, because they will not find it. There's no chance that we're going to find the right balance of keeping preachers from interpreting to their faith in the context of the political and the social realities of their time. That's the essence of what a church should be about.
In fact, you could argue that a lot of churches went silent during this last time, this last political debate leading up to this war in Iraq where a lot of preachers should've been speaking out and they didn't actually say anything. My father is an exemption of that. My father spoke quite prophetically, I think, against the war as a lot of other Southern Baptist preachers.
But I tell you what, here's the other thing that's interesting to me about how the IRS may go forward with this. You may recall that in the night in the 2004 election, the Bush/Cheney campaign actually tried to entice a lot of churches to become more involved and actually soliciting their own members to support the Cheney/Bush ticket.
I mean, when I look back at some of the literature that they were asking churches for and, you know, actually asking them for their church registration rolls, and then asking church members to identify other members who would support the campaign. They actually were soliciting churches to get involved in that campaign.
So my question would be if the IRS goes forward with this, are they going to actually prosecute campaigns for actually aiding and abetting, trying to entice churches to become part of the political campaign? Hey, good luck on this.
Ms. TARA SETMAYER (Republican Strategist): But members can do that, Nat. But the whole thing is when the institution itself stands up and the pastor, being the head of that institution, stands up, then that becomes the problem. Individual groups within a church are free to do what they want to do. More importantly, the ministers have the right to discuss issues. I mean, that is not prohibited. But when you start saying I'm for blankety-blank and I'm against blankety-blank, that's when you have the problem.
GORDON: Well, Tara, the problem is, it seems to me, when Yvonne suggested you can discuss issues, if you wanted to discuss issues of the war, part of the issue is whether or not you see it as just or unjust. Just as a note here, we should note that this All Saints Church in California has had a long history of social activism dating back to the 1940s. Pick up, please.
Ms. SETMAYER: Well, actually, pre-1954, churches were able to say and do anything they wanted within the political arena. It was Senator Lyndon Johnson at the time who introduced the legislation that we are basing this discussion on now in 1954, because he wanted to minimize and undermine political opponents within the churches because he recognized that they were hurting him.
So the context for this was a way to suppress political opposition. This is a very difficult area because the lines are so blurred. However, I think that the current threat of IRS violation and investigation can potentially suppress the First Amendment rights of pastors to discuss these issues.
But I agree with Yvonne that, as long as the current tax law is - 501c3 laws say what they say, they cannot endorse candidates. But this has been going on for years and years. And it's unfair to single out the Bush/Cheney campaign in '04 because the Democrats have been employing this strategy, particularly in urban churches and in Southern black churches. They've been employing this strategy for decades.
I ran a campaign in Jacksonville where churches had actual campaign posters on their lawns and property, which is a direct violation but no one bothers to challenge them. So the Bush/Cheney campaign recognized, hey, if they're going to do it, we're going to do it. It's a thin line, no one seems to be enforcing this so that's just typical campaigning. And it's smart on their behalf recognizing the influence of the church.
GORDON: All right. Let me ask this question, though, Nat. Once again, we are on a slippery slope, though, no matter what when you start talking about drawing that line. Are we not?
Prof. IRVIN: Oh, we are. And I think Tara makes a great point about churches having historically been involved in some aspect of the political process. Sometimes - particularly when you look at the movement of the civil rights movement led by black pastors and congregations that were involved in trying to change the political landscape so that it would be more favorable, well actually would be more equitable toward black people, you had to get involved in the political process.
And the conservative often will use this as a way of saying that it's always been thus, ever thus. But I think that what the IRS is trying to do now is interesting because actually trying to - having cited the NAACP before and we know about that case - but actually now before the November 2006 election, this ought to put everybody on notice that we're coming after you.
I think it sends a sort of a chill that, frankly, is unwelcome. That we actually need to have more people involved and not fewer.
Ms. SETMAYER: Well, the Christian Coalition...
GORDON: All right. Going...
Ms. SETMAYER: Oh, okay. I was just going to say quickly on the other side, the Christian Coalition, which is a conservative organization, was stripped of its tax-exempt status because of partisan involvement. So it's happened on both sides. And there is bi-partisan legislation in the House sponsored by 165 lawmakers called the Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act that suggests that the churches should be allowed to involve themselves in political campaigning without being stripped of their tax-exempt states. So we'll see what happens.
GORDON: All right. Let me move from the silence, or the want of silence, from churches to Barack Obama suggesting that Capitol Hill is too silent. When speaking with 2,000 Congressional interns this week, Yvonne, he suggested that lawmakers are too afraid to take political risks and develop enormous fear of the political cost of taking a stand.
Ms. BYNOE: I would tend to agree with him. I think it's a bipartisan problem. I think that plenty of people come to the Hill with the best intentions, but I think over time they become entrenched in the culture of Washington, D.C., and I think they become entrenched with the idea of holding onto power. So they cut deals and they parse out things to the extent that they don't seem to benefit anybody at all.
And more importantly, I think we've gotten into this culture of catering to this constituency group and that constituency group as opposed to looking at what is good for the whole of the country. So, to that extent, I do agree that certainly we have politicians who are continuously and rigorously moving forward to try to benefit - from their vantage point - the country. But I think we have far too many who are just holding a seat, and frankly, are too afraid. And their responses, frankly, are quite tepid because I think they're too afraid of offending this party or that party of people within the country.
GORDON: Nat, probably no disagreement here from what Senator Obama is saying, but what's interesting is to see the Senator take this stance. Because we have heard, over the course of the first year of his tenure, him saying that there was only so much that he could say as a freshman, so much he could do. He wanted to take it easy. We are starting to see Barack Obama stand up and stand out.
Prof. IRVIN: Yeah, that's an interesting point, Ed. He is a first-term Senator. And in the first few - I guess the first couple of years he hadn't had much to say. Now he's saying a lot more.
What is interesting to me about his comments is the idea of trying to say that the politicians are not actually saying what they believe. I'm not quite sure I agree with that. Well, maybe he's right. What I'd like to know is what do they believe? In particular, I'd like to know what do the democrats believe? To this day, I still don't know what John Kerry believes about the war in Iraq. So, I mean, you know, it's, so they don't...
Ms. SETMAYER: John Kerry doesn't know what John Kerry believes.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. IRVIN: I think that what he is - the essence of what he is saying is that it is a reflection, the Congress is a reflection of the American political landscape. The last two elections were very close. We have a lot of issues that polarize Americans: stem cells, abortion, the war in Iraq, immigration. Now, you can find, of course, there are politicians - this is where I disagree with him - there are politicians where you know where they stand. For many years, everybody in North Carolina and in fact the nation knew where Jesse Helms stood on every issue. It was very clear.
You can know to a large extent now what Senator Ted Kennedy is going to say on a lot of issues, or Senator Robert Byrd. There are a few people whose views are so well known, whose political stances are so well known, that they have become known for what they believe and what they stand in. The problem, I think, is -and this is where I think Obama is right about - is that a lot of what we're experiencing right now is not actually leadership. It's much more being driven by polls, it's sort of trying to hedge your way toward a position and then all of a sudden you can stand up and say, hey, I was with you all the way. You know - if it turns out that we win in Iraq, this is why the Democrats are in the position that they're in - if it turned out that things went well, they could say, hey, you know...
Prof. IRVIN: ...I knew we were going to do well. And so that's not leadership, that's followship.
GORDON: Tara, doesn't it really speak to the idea of Nat's Freudian slip -rather than stand for, what they stand in - and that seems to be what most of these politicians are talking anyway?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. IRVIN: Very good, Ed.
Ms. SETMAYER: Well, yeah that's very good. Well, that contributes to why public opinion polls are so low and there's such a high level of cynicism toward politicians, because of that factor right there.
I think Senator Obama's comments are interesting in that any first-year political science student knows that politicians are single seekers of reelection. That's their number one priority. And unfortunately, the constant need to campaign and cater to special interests forces other issues to be subordinate to that action of campaigning all of the time. And that's part of the ongoing discussion about whether elected officials are delegates or trustees of the people. It's a fundamental argument that's been going on for years.
And something else that contributes to this is gerrymandering districts that are safe seats. Politicians don't feel the need to have to necessarily take a stand, because once they're in, they're in. the power of incumbency is an extremely powerful tool. Most incumbents are reelected at a rate of over 90 percent, so that also contributes to the complacency and to these - with these politicians.
But the ultimate responsibility lies within the voters. They work for us, and people forget that. As my grandfather always says, you need to pay attention. And if more voters paid attention to what their politicians were doing, then I think that they would be held accountable with the threat of being voted out of office and this type of complacency wouldn't be so pervasive.
GORDON: Yeah. All right. With only about a couple of minutes left, a politician that would not have a problem speaking if in fact elected would be the round mound of rebound, our friend Charles Barkley, who's talking about possibly now running for the governorship of Alabama in 2010. Lest we take too many laughs, Nat, we've seen Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse The Body Ventura, former wrestler, be voted into office. This isn't so farfetched one would believe.
Prof. IRVIN: No, it's not so farfetched. And Mr. Barkley, I love to hear Charles Barkley talk, and he talks, and he loves to hear himself do it as well. But, you know, it's a lot easier to talk about running for political office from the studios of TNT than it is to actually do it. You know?
GORDON: You think he could be a viable candidate?
Prof. IRVIN: Well, the first thing that'll happen - he could be a viable candidate, but the question would be this: what happens when he runs down, when he announces and somebody actually fouls him and says, what about that $10 million gambling habit you have, Mr. Charles Barkley? (Unintelligible) talk about it.
GORDON: Yeah, Yvonne, what about the idea that Charles Barkley has had an interesting life, so to speak? I mean, the life of an NBA-er is cluttered with all kinds of temptation, and he has spoken freely about some of it. That has to be something he's got to think about it down the line.
Ms. BYNOE: I think the fact that he's been candid about his life, the good parts and the bad parts, certainly are to his credit. I think where I have the problem is - I think it's a slippery slope. Certainly, we've had Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse Ventura, but I feel like we're running down this place where we're starting to look at people as purely for name recognition and popularity as opposed to whether or not they're the best candidate for the job.
I don't know whether Charles Barkley has any political - real substantive political aspirations. But I think there are far better qualified people in the pipeline that we could be looking at. But the fact that he does have the media's attention, the same way the other people prior to him had it, I think that's an advantage that, you know...
Ms. SETMAYER: Yeah?
GORDON: Tara, 30 seconds. Real quick for me, he says he will run as a Democrat this go round, if in fact - or this round if he runs, because he says Republicans have lost his mind, lost their minds. As a Republican strategist, do you like that or not?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. SETMAYER: Well, I love Charles Barkley. I've actually read his autobiography, and he has a very fascinating life and very strong views on social issues. But I also, as a sports fanatic, listening to sports radio the other day he was on Dan Patrick's show, and Dan Patrick actually asked him substantive political questions that he couldn't answer. So, you know, I don't think Republicans take that...
GORDON: Well, that, listen...
Ms. SETMAYER: ...that (unintelligible) too seriously.
GORDON: That might be a plus. And it would put him in line with most of the candidates we ask substantive questions of. All right, guys. Thank you very much. Have a good weekend. Greatly appreciate you.
Ms. BYNOE: Thank you.
Prof. IRVIN: Have a good weekend.
Ms. SETMAYER: Thank you, Ed.
GORDON: Next up on NEWS AND NOTES, it's been more than 40 years since the people of the Democratic Republic of Congo have voted in free elections, but this weekend they'll get their chance. And the story of the first African-American world champion bicyclist.