Putting Churches in 'Neutral' on Politics In exchange for tax-exempt status, churches and non-profit organizations are required to remain neutral in political elections. But ironies abound in the national mix of religion and politics. Commentator S. Pearl Sharp is a writer, actress and film maker living in Los Angeles.
NPR logo

Putting Churches in 'Neutral' on Politics

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/6187180/6187181" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Putting Churches in 'Neutral' on Politics

Putting Churches in 'Neutral' on Politics

Putting Churches in 'Neutral' on Politics

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/6187180/6187181" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

In exchange for tax-exempt status, churches and non-profit organizations are required to remain neutral in political elections. But ironies abound in the national mix of religion and politics. Commentator S. Pearl Sharp is a writer, actress and film maker living in Los Angeles.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Earlier we heard about IRS investigations into politically active churches. Commentator S. Pearl Sharp says that the line between church and state has never been as solid as many of us would like think.

Ms. S. PEARL SHARP (Writer, Actress, and Filmmaker): I want to begin this sermon, began Reverend Bacon, by once again expressing my gratitude to the Internal Revenue Service. Those brothers and sisters really know how to shine a spotlight on a church and swell the number of worshippers.

Ed Bacon is the rector of a politically conscious, proactive congregation, All Saints Church in Pasadena, California. Twenty miles from downtown Los Angeles, Pasadena is the home of old money, and that annual winter flower ritual, the Rose Bowl Parade.

All Saints is currently being investigated by the IRS. Churches and nonprofit organizations, in exchange for their tax-exempt status, are required to remain neutral in political elections. About 100 organizations are currently under investigation right now, and almost half of them are churches. All Saints specifically is accused of taking sides in the 2004 presidential race during an anti-war sermon given by the Rector Emeritus the Reverend Doctor George F. Regas.

Now, I don't do church, but when I read the sermon in question I thought it was a creative approach to dealing with the current issues. The pastor put Jesus into the 2004 presidential debates against candidates George Bush and John Kerry and then tried to determine what Jesus would say to the candidates about war. And what would Jesus' position be on violence and poverty?

Jesus apparently thinks that Bush's preemptive strategy against Iraq is a disaster. Because of that sermon two years ago, the IRS is now demanding a bunch of documentation, such as how much money it cost the church to present that particular sermon, and a listing of every time a political candidate was mentioned by name during the ten months leading up to the election, which, ironically, would include a multitude of prayers offered for the president's welfare.

But wait a minute. Could you rewind that tape, back to 2001? If my memory is not failing me, didn't they sing the Battle Hymn of the Republic at a service for 9/11 victims?

(Soundbite of song “Battle Hymn of the Republic”)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored…

SHARP: Trampling the grapes of wrath? Okay, so apparently he missed the Internal Revenue Service. Glory, glory, hallelujah.

I'm talking about the National Day of Prayer, just four days after the 9/11 attacks on the U.S., in the National Cathedral, presided over by President Bush himself.

In a country where the separation of church and state is written into the Constitution, I'm always surprised when reminded that we have a National Cathedral. But the psychological impact of ending the National Day of Prayer with an energized rendition of a Battle Hymn did not escape me. It was clear. It was ominous.

We are a country birthed by war and we wear it on our psyche like a permanent tattoo. If churches and other nonprofit organizations are legally required to remain neutral on politics, then maybe it would be a fair turnaround if the government was required to remain neutral on war songs sung in its church.

All Saints Church is certain that the IRS summons, coming two years after the alleged offense, is timed to silence the church membership on next month's mid-term elections. IRS Commissioner Mark W. Everson insists “political considerations played absolutely no part in the inquiries we launched.”

Haven't we heard this song before? The church has decided to fight the IRS, and I, for one, think that calls for a couple of choruses of Onward Christian Soldiers.

(Soundbite of song “Onward Christian Soldiers”)

CHIDEYA: S. Pearl Sharp is a writer living in Los Angeles.

This is NPR News.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.