Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., Feb. 27, 28 or March 1
As Christianity’s Lenten season starts this week – with devotion to self-denial, repentance and giving – the chaotic actions spewing from the new administration call for discernment, too.
In the New Testament, Matthew 25 quotes Jesus as saying, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.
“Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me.”
The administration’s upside-down answers involve cutting food stamps for the needy, weakening EPA protections for clean water, building a wall and banning refugees fleeing war and their homes, slashing programs for the poor and seniors, and imprisoning more through “broken-window” and “stop-and-frisk” policies.
With religions, the White House is trying some political sleight-of-hand. However, supposed concerns about religious freedoms are revealed as misdirection when church sanctuary programs are attacked.
The President is offering churches an olive branch, a chance to endorse candidates while keeping their tax breaks. That’s as lousy an idea as Big Banks “socializing” losses but privatizing profits. Still, the White House is promising to repeal a 62-year-old law, a bipartisan measure sponsored by then-Democratic Sen. Lyndon Johnson and signed by Republican President Dwight Eisenhower. It forbids tax-exempt groups, including churches, 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” in order to enjoy tax breaks.
The law doesn’t outlaw their free speech. For decades, it’s prohibited charitable groups from financially benefiting from tax breaks if they engage in candidates’ races. It’s merely enforced the bargain the groups made when they applied for tax-exempt status: They get special treatment if they remain neutral on elections; if not, they’re treated like commercial organizations.
Churches and their leaders have always been free to publish election guides, register voters, hold forums for candidates to campaign, and give sermons about subjects important to their faiths, from abortion to travel bans.
If the law’s repealed, churches could turn into Political Action Committees with sacraments, using a colossal loophole to take unrestricted amounts of money from people who’d get tax write-offs even though funds could go to candidates. That compels all taxpayers to underwrite a small group’s politicking.
Besides worsening campaign spending, it’s unpopular: 8 in 10 Americans oppose a repeal, according to a September poll by Lifeway Research, a Nashville religious survey firm – and so do some churches. Amanda Tyler, director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, told the New York Times that repealing the law “would usher our partisan divisions into the pews.”
The draft of the “Government-Wide Initiative to Respect Religious Freedoms” exempts churches or religious individuals from following laws if they claim some moral objection, a change comparable to a Mississippi law struck down for violating the Constitution’s Equal Protection and Establishment clauses. Meanwhile, last week’s Oval Office increased the threat of deportation, so churches, synagogues and mosques are trying to adjust to rising fears from immigrants and about a government crackdown on sanctuaries.
Historians trace the sanctuary idea to ancient times, when fugitives or even criminals were given immunity if they retreated to churches. It continued in Great Britain and the western hemisphere and got renewed use in the 1980s, when refugees fled Central American wars. People seeking sanctuary are protected but isolated inside, almost a friendly imprisonment.
This isn’t something just happening in California. In Illinois, a Unitarian Universalist ministry at the University of Illinois’ Urbana campus, a Methodist church in Humboldt Park and a Presbyterian church in Chicago have sanctuary programs, as do the cities of Chicago, Hoffman Estates and Oak Park. Also declaring their spaces sanctuaries are libraries in Cambridge, Mass., and 23 counties in Iowa.
Some federal authorities say they won’t raid churches, based on a 2011 Immigration and Customs Enforcement memo instructing agents to avoid places of worship (along with hospitals and schools.) Nevertheless, sanctuary activists are worried their shelters or protections might have to become like 19th century abolitionists’ Underground Railroad.
It’s uncertain whether the offer of defying laws based on religious conscience will apply to sanctuaries, too.
Regardless, it’s certain that the inside-out approach is as unhinged as the Mad Hatter’s un-birthday tea party in “Alice in Wonderland.”
Or any Tea Party that has a Mad Hatter and March Hare at the table.
[PICTURED: Denver church leaders from Methodists to Mennonites, Baptists to Catholics, Unitarians to Jews are providing sanctuary to those in need. Photo from the UU Church of Cheyenne, Wyo.]