When the Faithful Succumb to Temptation

An editorial in Friday’s Wall Street Journal regarding a new campaign of the Internal Revenue Service raises an alarming issue for religious communities. It reports that the IRS has newly expanded its Political Activity Compliance Initiative to “put some 15,000 nonprofits — mostly churches — on notice that preaching politics puts them at risk of audits, fines or, in some cases, the loss of tax-exempt status.”

More disturbingly, the IRS has announced that

It will no longer wait for complaints to come in, but will instead take action ‘to prevent violations.’ It will be reviewing the content of sermons, it says, as well as the financial books of religious organizations. The free exercise of religion could now come with a hefty bill.

This is an issue that impacts religious institutions at all points along the political spectrum. And, the IRS concedes, there is no bright-line test for determining what constitutes political activity. Indeed, the WSJ piece begins with an anecdote about a Pasadena minister whose church has been under investigation since 2004 because of a sermon he gave two days before that year’s presidential election opposing the Iraq War.

As the WSJ editorialist observes:

Churches have always tried to influence voters on moral issues. What is different now is that moral issues — abortion, stem-cell research, same-sex marriage, war — are now hot political issues, and the IRS is pushing religious communities out of the debate.

What possessed the IRS to breach that venerable, and venerated, shrine, before which so many reflexively genuflect, known as the Wall of Separation of Church and State, and begin, incredibly, to monitor sermons?! Aye, here’s the astounding rub:

Barry W. Lynn [himself a reverend – EK], director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, has pushed for the crackdown by filing complaints with the IRS and boasting that his group is committed to ‘keeping churches out of partisanship.’ For a man who supports nearly every effort to erect a wall of separation, he seems not to mind sending IRS agents into churches if it keeps ministers out of politics.

If the spectacle of sworn, dogmatic separationists blithely trampling their own sacred doctrine to bring Church and State into head-on conflict seems vaguely familiar, that may be because it’s a tactic that heterodox Jewish leaders have engaged in on several occasions in the past.

I speak here not of the fact that during times of inter-denominational conflict, such the “who is a Jew” ruckus, heterodox clergy have regularly inveighed against the Orthodox from pulpits across the nation. Such episodes, albeit mighty unseemly from the perspective of pure separation dogma, are not, strictly speaking, attempts to entangle religion with domestic American political affairs, only with Israeli ones.

No, I refer instead to several instances in which heterodox activists have unabashedly attempted to use the American political machinery to intervene in both the internal Israeli political process and its indigenous religious life. In a word, to do that which is, in the separationist catechism, pure heresy, Someone forbid.

To wit, back in 1997, the Forward quoted Reform activist Ammiel Hirsch (now, where do I know that name from?) as stating on Israeli radio that his movement had asked members of Congress to intervene on its behalf in the conversion controversy then roiling the Knesset. Hirsch, at first, made an “outright denial” of the paper’s claim, but when confronted with the transcript of his remarks, conceded having made them, because “no American citizen should be ashamed to be politically active.”

For a much more recent example, I excerpt here from an article I penned last year:

The United States Department of State has just issued its International Religious Freedom Report for 2005. The report, which the State Department has prepared annually for the past several years, surveys and comments upon the relationships between governments the world over and the various religious communities under their sway, as well as inter-religious relations in those countries.

The section of the report addressing Israel spans 22 pages and contains a number of very disturbing passages, particularly those discussing Israel’s Orthodox population and the status of the non-Orthodox movements.

The problematic nature of the report becomes apparent in its very first paragraph, which states that “problems continued to exist stemming from the unequal treatment of religious minorities, and from the State’s recognition of only Orthodox Jewish religious authorities in personal and some civil matters concerning Jews.” Elsewhere in the report, there are several references to “the different streams of Judaism” and to “Jews who are not considered Jewish by the Orthodox establishment.”

Query: what reason and right does this arm of the United States government have to insert itself into a purely internal matter of Jewish law, namely the determination of what constitutes authentic Judaism, and by extension, who is a Jew or a rabbi, and what is a synagogue? Not only are the report’s authors entirely bereft of the most minimal expertise and authority necessary to decide those questions, but the very goal of this report, the fostering of religious freedom – in this case, the freedom of Jews, rather than non-Jewish, foreign governmental bureaucrats, to decide the definition of their religion – is severely undermined thereby.

Clearly, the claim being advanced in this report is not that non-Orthodox groups are being denied recognition and funding as distinct religious minorities, akin to what Muslims and others claim. Were that the case, one might be tempted, at least, to agree that such groups ought to indeed be recognized as autonomous religious communities that, like two other well-known religions in Israel, have roots in, but do not presently constitute, Judaism. But what the report contends, instead, is that denial of these groups’ legitimacy as authentic forms of Judaism, and their concomitant inability to perform Jewish conversions, marriages, divorces and other matters, is discriminatory per se.

One might wonder how it is that Washington diplomats with little knowledge of the inner working of Judaism have decided with finality that there are multiple streams therein, and thus, that Israel’s failure to recognize all such “streams” is an unacceptable curtailment of religious freedom? The answer can be found in a Jewish Telegraphic Agency news story on the report, in which the Reform movement’s man in Washington, David Saperstein, freely acknowledges that he has raised the issues addressed in the report with Bush administration officials.

So there we have it: unable to win recognition for itself and its heterodox fellow travelers, Conservatism and Reconstructionism, through the Israeli democratic process, Reform has reverted to a playbook it has used in the past by getting the American government to censure Israel for religious rights abuses.

Being politically active is indeed a wonderful thing, when it involves helping the candidate you support get elected, manning your local polling site and the like. But what Reform’s operatives have done in these instances is an outrage that deserves to be excoriated in the strongest terms.

We are dealing here with movements that, just last month, were described in the Jerusalem Post by prominent Israeli Reform clergyman David Forman as “marginal streams, comprised largely, with rare exception, of Anglo-Jewish populations. In fact, there are probably no more than 5,000 dues-paying members of [non-Orthodox temples] throughout the country.” Moreover, Forman wrote, “while it is convenient for us to blame our unequal treatment by the government for our limited numbers . . . it is highly doubtful that if we were granted full rights tomorrow our membership would grow significantly.”

(An aside: The State Department report cites claims that there are, lo aleinu, 10,000 so-called Messianic Jews in Israel and complaints by such individuals of being denied entry to Israel by the authorities and other harassment. If Forman’s figure is correct, there are, in Israel, twice as many Messianics as there are members of non-Orthodox movements. Is Reform seeking legitimization of the Messianic movement alongside their own, and, if not, why, in rational terms, not?)

Along come these moribund movements that have failed repeatedly in their resort to democratic channels of political change and whose only victories have been handed to them by one of the world’s most activist supreme courts. They now seek to subvert Israeli democracy by instigating external U.S. governmental pressure on Israel. Given the always-fragile American-Israeli relationship, already strained by the Palestinian issue, the AIPAC scandal and other matters, it is inconceivable that groups claiming to represent Jews and Judaism would tamper with the Israeli-American political calculus in this way. Rabbi Moshe Sherer, commenting on the similar Reform effort in 1997, put it well: “It is absolutely astounding that a movement representing itself as an exemplar of democracy and freedom should so flagrantly be attempting to undermine the democratic system of a foreign country.”

You may also like...

10 Responses

  1. JewishAtheist says:

    Talk about disingenuous.

    The wall between church and state was breached when the state allowed the church to be tax-exempt. Enforcing that the church hold up their end of even that sweet deal is hardly a further breach.

  2. Bob Miller says:

    What if someone preached that politicians are bad in general?

  3. Ahron says:

    Regarding the tax issue: Seriously, what else would you expect from a money-collection bureaucracy whose very purpose is intrusion, inspection and cash extraction? The IRS exists as the government’s “attack dog” against the bank accounts of the population. Its job is to extract money and give it to the government. If the IRS now intends to extract more money from some religious institutions that is a minor shift of degree, not kind. (And it is worth noting that the current US tax bureaucracy is far more intrusive than the British tax system that the American Founders rebelled against).

    On the other issue of leftist Jewish clergy trying to foster outside pressure against Israel, I recall that for several years prior to the restart of Arab violence in October 2000 some Reform and Conservative rabbis frequently railed publicly against the “oppressive restrictions” placed on them by Israel. They toned it down after the ignition of international anti-Israel rage but they had frankly been beating the “Israel-is-oppressive” drum for so many years that I suspect they did some real emotional damage to pro-Israel support among some of their own congregants. (An Israeli diplomat told me at the time that his ministry was aware of this problem.)

    In retrospect it seems clear that the clergy were really infuriated by the Israeli government’s and public’s energetic disinterest in their movements.

    One wonders what Reform and Conservative spokespersons would do if Orthodox groups tried to marshall the US State Department to intervene against Israel in dealing with, say, the perennial autopsy abuses by Israeli government pathologists. “Why, you can’t do that!…You’re endangering the American-Israeli relationship…You’re trying to interfere in Israel’s internal affairs…You’re playing with fire!” Oh, the humanity…

  4. Tal Benschar says:

    “The wall between church and state was breached when the state allowed the church to be tax-exempt”

    Not true. Any non-profit organization enjoys the same status. You can start the local Chapter of a Stamp-Collectors Club or even, for that matter, the Atheists of America, and be entitled to the same tax exempt status.

  5. Seth Gordon says:

    You can start the local Chapter of a Stamp-Collectors Club or even, for that matter, the Atheists of America, and be entitled to the same tax exempt status.

    Yes, but if the Stamp-Collectors Club uses its resources to endorse a political candidate, then it can lose that tax-exempt status.

    The IRS has a fact sheet on the topic giving examples of what is and is not allowed.

  6. Michael says:

    Seth, Tal was answering “JewishAthiest” who said that giving a church a tax break was breaching church-state separation. He’s right, it’s not. You’re right that none of these organizations can get into political endorsements, but Tal undoubtedly agrees with you on that.

  7. Seth Gordon says:

    Yeah, my comment #5 should not have been phrased as a direct response to Tal. Here is a more direct response:

    IRS Publication 557 [PDF], page 16, says “An organization may qualify for exemption for federal income tax if it is organized and operated exclusively for one or more of the following purposes”, and then gives a list. One of the items on that list is “Religious”. If “Religious” were not on the list, then synagogues would not qualify for non-profit status.

  8. JewishAtheist says:


    Not true. Any non-profit organization enjoys the same status. You can start the local Chapter of a Stamp-Collectors Club or even, for that matter, the Atheists of America, and be entitled to the same tax exempt status.

    You’re right — I wasn’t clear. If it allows churches to remain tax exempt while engaging in behaviors not permitted other non-profit organizations, it would be a breach.

  9. mycroft says:

    If one organizes as a tax exempt body one can’t engage in politics. One can become a political lobby-but contributions are not tax-deductible-eg AIPAC.

    More disturbingly, the IRS has announced that

    It will no longer wait for complaints to come in, but will instead take action ‘to prevent violations.’ It will be reviewing the content of sermons, it says, as well as the financial books of religious organizations. The free exercise of religion could now come with a hefty bill.

    What is disturbing about an enforcement organization not waiting for a complaint to enforce the law eg do traffic policemen wait for a complaint to enforce speeding laws. One should not justify evasion of laws.

  10. Tal Benschar says:

    Now that we all seem to be in agreement that (1) tax exemption per se is not an establishment of religion and (2) all tax exempt organizations, religious or not, must avoid “political activity” to maintain that status, the question becomes whether one can clearly delineate between political endorsements, which are forbidden, and more general discussion of issues of policy (which may include a moral and ehtical dimension), which are still permitted.

    Unfortunately, if one reviews the IRS fact sheet which Seth Gordon linked to, you will see that some parts of it are vague and subject to IRS discretion. In particular, look at thess paragraphs:

    Under federal tax law, section 501(c)(3) organizations may take positions on public policy issues, including issues that divide candidates in an election for public office. However, section 501(c)(3) organizations must avoid any issue advocacy that functions as political campaign intervention. Even if a statement does not expressly tell an audience to vote for or against a specific candidate, an organization delivering the statement is at risk of violating the political campaign intervention prohibition if there is any message favoring or opposing a candidate. A statement can identify a candidate not only by stating the candidate’s name but also by other means such as showing a picture of the candidate, referring to political party affiliations, or other distinctive features of a candidate’s platform or biography. All the facts and circumstances need to be considered to determine if the advocacy is political campaign intervention.

    Key factors in determining whether a communication results in political campaign intervention include the following:
    • Whether the statement identifies one or more candidates for a given public office;
    • Whether the statement expresses approval or disapproval for one or more candidates’ positions and/or actions;
    • Whether the statement is delivered close in time to the election;
    • Whether the statement makes reference to voting or an election;
    • Whether the issue addressed in the communication has been raised as an issue distinguishing candidates for a given office;
    • Whether the communication is part of an ongoing series of communications by the organization on the same issue that are made independent of the timing of any election; and
    • Whether the timing of the communication and identification of the candidate are related to a non-electoral event such as a scheduled vote on specific legislation by an officeholder who also happens to be a candidate for public office.

    A communication is particularly at risk of political campaign intervention when it makes reference to candidates or voting in a specific upcoming election. Nevertheless, the communication must still be considered in context before arriving at any conclusions.

    This kind of vague, open-ended, multi-factor approach lends itself to abuse and partisan selective application.

    Consider the following:

    In an upcoming election campaign, a hot issue develops in the gubernatorial (and state legislative) elections about whether the state’ consitution should be amended to define marriage as between a man and a woman. (Or whether the state should recognize same sex marriage, or some variation thereof.)

    What are clergy permitted to say about this?

    Clearly, they cannot say “Vote for X.”

    But can they speak about their religion’s view of marriage? About their religion’s view of homosexualtiy? About whether there is a religious or moral obligation to enact the religion’s views of marriage?

    To bring it closer to home, can a Rav talk about the gemara in Chullin 92a-b that discusses one of the three “mitzvos” which the goyim keep, i.e. refusing to recognizing homosexual “marriage?” About whether it is lifnei iver to vote for a candidate determined to enact same-sex marriage?

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This