Shameless Radical Religious Leaders Have Now Corrupted Government

It’s time to cut them off from the “free lunch” of tax exemption

Photo by Marc Schaefer on Unsplash

It’s time for average Americans to stop being forced to subsidize politically radical religious leaders.

Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham and heir to the multimillion-dollar Graham fortune, just publicly said that the 10 Republicans voting to impeach Donald Trump and the US House of Representatives were like Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus.

“And these ten, from [Trump’s] own party, joined in the feeding frenzy,” he wrote. “It makes you wonder what the thirty pieces of silver were that Speaker Pelosi promised for this betrayal.”

Franklin Graham is a multimillionaire in large part because neither he nor his family have to pay any taxes on their family’s business’ income or even pay property taxes on the land and buildings their business owns.

Instead, you and I and the taxpayers of his town and state pay extra taxes to subsidize him and his “ministry.”

Back in the 1950s, the John Birch Society put up billboards all across America demanding that Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren be impeached because he’d signed off on the Brown v Board decision that required schools be racially integrated.

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White churches across the country, along with wealthy industrialists like Fred Koch, helped fund the effort, arguing that school integration was the first step to full-blown to communism in America.

Preachers ranted from the pulpit about the dangers of school integration, and the issue birthed the modern “religious right.” Bob Jones, Jerry Falwell and others started all-white schools to defy the decision, often claiming that because their schools were “Christian” they were exempt from federal oversight and thus didn’t have to comply with the Supreme Court’s dictum.

Into this firestorm stepped Senator Lyndon Johnson, who proposed in 1954 that it was fine if churches wanted to engage in politics or argue that Jesus would have been against racial integration, but if they chose to do so the rest of America shouldn’t be forced to subsidize them.

When preachers push politics instead of religion on Sunday morning, the so-called Johnson Amendment said, their church should lose its tax-exempt status.

As the IRS notes: “Under the Internal Revenue Code, all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited 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.”

Churches could still participate in non-partisan political activities like a voter registration drive or organizing buses to take people to polling places, but when they took a position on candidates or political issues they lost their right to have all the rest of us pay for their police, fire, and all the other public services that taxes fund.

But ever since George HW Bush brought his son George W. Bush into his 1988 campaign to reach out to white evangelical churches, many evangelists, televangelists, and all-white churches across America have been ignoring this law.

They not only regularly preach rightwing hate, completely inconsistent with Jesus‘s message, but they raise hundreds of millions of dollars — all tax exempt —to inject into political campaigns.

This is not how the Framers of our Constitution thought America should operate.

At the founding of our republic, “father of the Constitution” James Madison was worried about government influencing and corrupting churches as had happened in Massachusetts before the Revolution. On the other hand, his mentor, Thomas Jefferson, was worried that churches and their religious leaders could corrupt politicians and government itself.

It turns out both were right.

Their solution was written into Article VI of the Constitution, which says, “[N]o religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

They doubled-down on it with the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

Thomas Jefferson later referred to this as a “wall of separation between church and state” that would keep both our republic and our churches independent of each other.

When he became President, Madison‘s first veto was to reject a piece of legislation that would’ve given a federal subsidy to a church in Washington DC to feed needy people.

No government should be giving money to churches, he said, regardless of purpose, and the proposed law he vetoed would “be a precedent for giving to religious societies as such a legal agency in carrying into effect a public and civil duty.”

Sadly, and particularly since the Reagan Revolution, we’ve badly backslid on this principle. Churches have figured out hundreds of ways to get their hands on government money, and deeply embedded themselves in the business of lobbying and politics.

It’s hard to find a successful televangelist or major evangelical pastor who is not now a multimillionaire, presiding over a multi-million or even billion-dollar empire within America’s multi-billion-dollar-a-year religious industry.

Modern history, particularly since 1954, proves the wisdom of Madison and Jefferson‘s concern.

It’s time for Congress and the IRS to tighten up their rules and enforcement, and cut these freeloaders off their free lunch of tax exemption when they engage in politics.

America’s #1 progressive talk show host & NY Times bestselling author. Thom’s latest project is the “Hidden History” series of books.

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