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Craig Parshall, General Counsel


An Old Lesson for a New Congress

November 3, 2010

In the wake of the stunning election reversal yesterday, one of the most important agenda items for the new Congress ought to be one that actually transcends party politics. The point is illustrated by Benjamin Franklin, who recalled in his autobiography the day he heard a sermon delivered by George Whitefield, the famous 18th Century preacher. Whitefield was pleading for financial support for an orphanage he was starting. Franklin, known for keeping a firm grip on his wallet, noted that when the collection plate was passed, “I empty’d my pocket wholly into the collector’s dish, gold and all.” The point here is not about Whitefield’s considerable powers of moral persuasion. It’s about the long, distinguished history of Christian charities and ministries in America. Washington D. C. seems to have forgotten about all of that in its headlong rush toward federalizing, regulating, and subsidizing more and more of American life. Instead, our leaders should be shrinking the size of government by looking to private, non-profit religious organizations to help us solve a myriad of social problems. NRB’s members have the privileged mission of communicating the eternity-changing message of Jesus Christ. But there is an added benefit of this work: it changes lives, and ministers to a vast array of public needs. Our ministries feed the hungry, help employ the jobless, give shelter to the homeless, defend the oppressed, illuminate public needs, protect children, treat the drug-addicted, and provide education to masses of Americans. With that in mind, what follows below are a few thoughts on how our federal government could energize, rather than disable, non-profit religious organizations.

Economic Empowerment. President Obama’s budget proposal made the astounding suggestion of eliminating the long-standing charitable deduction that has been available for taxpayers, reducing their income tax by a percentage of their contributions to churches and other ministries. The Administration’s suggestion would deal a devastating blow to every non-profit group in the nation. Instead of eliminating this deduction, Congress ought to expand it. The current income limitation on charitable deductions should be eliminated. After all, a ten-dollar private contribution to the typical non-profit Christian charity is more effective in reducing our social woes than a thousand tax dollars in the hands of a federal bureaucracy. Moreover, the current Administration ought to be urged not to use its Faith-Based Office to push its political agenda (like its recent attempt this September to strong-arm religious groups to support the controversial health care law). Rather, the Administration should be reminded of the original vision for that Office: promoting the special ability of America’s faith groups in solving America’s social problems. In addition, legislation like H.R. 5866 should be soundly rejected; that proposal would force religious organizations that partner with the government to disavow their religious beliefs when making hiring decisions. Finally, it is high time that non-profit religious broadcasters be permitted more leeway to raise funds on the air for other legitimate, non-profit groups without running afoul of FCC regulations. NRB has put this proposal to the FCC, along with another plea: asking the FCC to unshackle non-commercial radio and television so they can compete in the media marketplace by loosening the current FCC handcuffs that restrain our broadcasters from effectively raising funds. Current Commission regulations make it difficult for non-coms to use local businesses for sponsorship and underwriting of their programs.

Honoring the Historic Autonomy of Religious Non-Profits. Congress should eliminate the current gag rule that muzzles religious leaders from speaking out about political candidates. Under the IRS code, a member of the clergy who makes publicly candid statements about a candidate’s views could cause his church or religious group to lose its tax-exempt status. The IRS rules on what does or does not constitute endorsement or support of a politician are dizzyingly complex and logically incoherent. Pastors played an integral role in the founding of this nation. It is time to fully restore their religious freedoms. Some of our leaders on Capitol Hill, and certainly in the national media, have been suspicious, if not outright cynical, toward Christian organizations. In last Sunday’s Washington Post, the reviewer of a new book titled The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy had to admit that controversial “evangelicals … are among the most inviting targets for journalists.” Yet the fact is that journalists are not the only ones aiming their arrows at Christian groups. Potential federal regulation of the inner workings of Christian ministries has been in discussions for years. Recently the IRS, without any specific Congressional authority, amended the 990 forms that non-profits have to file. Those forms now include a raft of questions that intrude into the First Amendment protected, internal operations of religious groups. Congress needs to push back against this regulatory encroachment of religious autonomy.  

Affirming the Right of Religious Expression. Several of our current Supreme Court justices, including recently confirmed Elena Kagan, have given strong hints that certain kinds of disfavored speech may be on the chopping block, and may be lawfully suppressed. Christian expression could be a likely target. A recent example is the Christian Legal Society decision where the High Court affirmed the right of public institutions to officially discriminate against Christian organizations that do not hew to the prevailing standards of political correctness. Our government needs to affirm that the Gospel message is entitled to protection in the public market place of ideas even if it occasionally offends. And while the FCC is mulling over the question of how broadly it can regulate the Internet, and as telecom companies push back, somewhere in this debate, someone has to insist on a “Bill of Rights” for non-indecent, otherwise lawful religious expression over the web; in the absence of that protection, expressions of faith could be squeezed off of this universal communications platform and sent out into the wilderness.

John Adams, writing long after the American Revolution had been won, observed that in fact the real revolution for independence had begun long before the first shots were fired. “The Revolution,” he said, “was in the mind and hearts of the people; and [the] change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations.” The Christian revivals of the Great Awakening informed America’s notions of freedom and moral responsibility at the birth at our founding. It is now time for Congress to be awakened; to be rallied to the revolutionary spiritual and temporal contributions that Christian organizations are still making in America.