Monday, March 3, 2008

Charles Grassley Investigation Christian Ministries

It has been in the news lately that Iowa Senator Charles Grassley is investigating various large churches, suspicious that they are not following the tax laws correctly. Grassley is meeting some resistance from some of the ministries and their supporters. In the Senator's own words:

"I don't profess to be an expert on the American constitution, but I would make three brief observations:
1. If you have nothing to hide, why try hiding it?
2. I thought the intent of the desire to separate church from state was mainly to prevent the church interfering with the running of the state, rather than vice versa.
3. It may be legitimate to want to run your own religious organization free from state interference (provided that that religion doesn't contradict the laws of the land). However, if the state has granted you various fiscal privileges, isn't it legitimate for the state's fiscal officers to investigate how those privileges are being used and to try to ensure that all legitimate taxation is paid. You may think that god is on your side, but that doesn't mean you are above the law. Even Jesus said you had to render unto Caesar those things which were his and pay taxes."

Grassley makes some good points, although I think his quest may not be properly founded. For example, one of his concerns is that too much donated money may be spent on salaries and fringe benefits. Does the Senate also investigate with equal fervor other non-profit organizations that may also be spending donated money on roughly the same type of things, or is his interest limited to religious organizations?

Mostly, I don't have a problem with an overseeing group asking questions, provided those are not intended to unfairly harass any organization or type of organization (i.e. television ministries). HOWEVER, I am truly concerned over his second reason quoted above. Where does Grassley get the idea that the First Amendment (or the less-defined "separation of church and state") is to prevent the church from running the state? That simply was not addressed in the First Amendment, which states:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;"

In the words of James Madison (who is considered the father of the First Amendment), "The First Amendment was prompted because the people feared one sect might obtain preeminence, or two combine together and establish a religion to which they would compel others to conform."

Does that sound like these very articulate people were intending to keep religion from meddling in government?

I do NOT think that religion should meddle in government affairs (aside from advocacy), but the First Amendment was not intended to address this, either pro or con. The very phrase "separation of church and state" that is used so often today originated from a private letter of Thomas Jefferson. He was assuring the Danbury Baptists that the government could not compel them to adhere to another religion's teachings because the federal government does not have that power. That is the context from which the "separation" metaphor is drawn.

Once again, a lack of knowledge and historical context of the Constitution is leading to misuse and abuse of its purpose and constraints. If Senator Grassley wants to investigate organizations because of alleged misuse of funds, he can do so. But to partly justify it by distorting the First Amendment makes me suspicious that his cause is not purely in the sense of legitimate oversight.
And the Senator can not justify this because he does not "profess to be an expert on the American constitution..." He had BETTER be an expert to the extent that he understands what it means! He has sworn an oath to support and defend it, not to guess what it means. In this case he has turned the meaning on its head. The First Amendment was clearly intended to keep the U.S. Government from meddling with religion. Its first words are "Congress shall make no law..." Those five words apply both to the "establishment" clause and to the "free exercise" clause. It's just about that simple. These literate men who so eloquently drafted the Constitution could surely have found a way to say "...and churches shall have no influence over the Government" if that is what they meant.

I am from Iowa and proud of my heritage. But I am ashamed of Senator Grassley.

1 comment:

carol said...

Bravo! Good article; good points. These articulate people who wrote the original documents were coming from a situation where there was state imposed religion, monarchs alternating persecution of religious groups. All of this was fresh in mind as they wrote these safeguards.

They have stood the church down in the courthouse square, schools, etc. This looks like attempting to move into the church arena.

I am personally appreciative of these being "investigated" and others sending letters of concern to the finance committee.

There are twists in this - in language and in handling - that should raise red flags for anyone wishing to retain religious freedom. "Oversight Overstep" was one of many articles on the subject. Everyone else wake up!