Word of the Day: Public Square

Remember John F. Kennedy’s famous speech assuring the public that his Catholicism would not affect his decisions as president?  While Rick Santorum was still a candidate for president, he said about Kennedy’s speech:

Earlier in my political career, I had the opportunity to read the [Kennedy] speech, and I almost threw up.  You should read the speech.

Hold on to your lunch, because we’re going to do just that.  Here’s the central theme in what JFK said to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in 1960:

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute—where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote—where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference—and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.

Santorum, who, like JFK, is Catholic, critiques this thinking as follows:

Kennedy for the first time articulated the vision saying, “No, faith is not allowed in the public square. I will keep it separate.”  Go on and read the speech.

When asked about the throwing up bit, he elaborated:

To say that people of faith have no role in the public square?  You bet that makes you throw up.  What kind of country do we live that says only people of non-faith can come into the public square and make their case?  That makes me throw up.

Huh?  The guy is a lawyer, a two-time U.S. Representative, and a two-time U.S. Senator.  Does he really not get it?  I suppose the most charitable assumption is that he’s just playing to his electorate.

There are two meanings to “public square,” and Santorum confuses (or deliberately conflates) them here.  The First Amendment establishes our free speech rights and, with some exceptions, we can say whatever we want in the literal public square.  Hand out religious leaflets on a street corner.  Stand on a soap box and preach like they do in Hyde ParkWear a sign proclaiming the end of the world.  Everyone agrees that the right that allows people of faith to speak in the public square is important.  It is not under attack, and atheists defend Christians’ right to speak as strongly as Christians do.

The other public square is the government-supported public square—schools, courthouses, government buildings.  The rules are different here.  The First Amendment constrains government when it says, in part, “Congress [that is: government] shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

Government must stay out of religion.  No prayers or religiously motivated science in public schools.  No Moses holding the Ten Commandments glaring down at you in a courtroom (as a collection of historic lawmakers, this is okay).  No “In God We Trust” as a motto behind the city council (yeah, I know that we have that, but it’s still unconstitutional).

And isn’t this best for the Christian as well?  No Wiccan or Satanist prayers in public schools.  No Hindu god of jurisprudence glaring down from the courtroom wall.  No “Allahu Akbar” in Arabic script behind the city council.

Keeping government out of the public square helps the Christian as much as it does the atheist.

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Ten Commandments have no Role in Public

Apologetics and freethoughtSome Christians have no patience with a separation between church and state and want to display the Ten Commandments in the public square—the state-supported public square.

Judge Roy Moore is an example. As chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, Moore installed a 2.5-ton granite monument in the Supreme Court building showing two tablets holding the Ten Commandments in 2001. He said, “Today a cry has gone out across our land for the acknowledgment of that God upon whom this nation and our laws were founded. … May this day mark the restoration of the moral foundation of law to our people and the return to the knowledge of God in our land.” A lawsuit was filed, Moore lost, he was ordered to remove the monument, he refused, and he was removed from office.

And now he is the leading candidate for getting his old job back. We live in interesting times.

A 2007 poll compared Americans’ knowledge of the Ten Commandments with the seven ingredients in a McDonald’s Big Mac hamburger. More people remembered “two all-beef patties” from the TV commercial than remembered “thou shalt not kill” from Sunday school. Even among churchgoers, 30% didn’t remember “thou shalt not kill,” and 31% didn’t remember “thou shalt not steal.”

One atheist wit observed that the Big Mac had an unfair advantage—it had a jingle. Solution: set the Ten Commandments to music. “Only God, no idols, watch your mouth, special day, call your mom … on a sesame seed bun.”

How big a deal is this? Does poor recall of the Ten Commandments correlate to poor morals? I say no, and I think Americans’ poor memory in this case isn’t a shocking oversight; instead, it reflects the irrelevance of the Ten Commandments in modern life. We don’t need the Commandments to remind us that killing is wrong, and they’re not an especially complete or relevant list for secular America. “Don’t enslave,” “don’t rape,” and “no genocide” are glaringly absent, and “have no other gods before me” has no place in the state-supported public square.

(Sorry, pro-lifers—abortion was obviously not top of mind for God when he dictated the Commandments, since he included “don’t covet” but omitted “no abortion.”)

To wiggle out of uncomfortable baggage, some Christians try to play the “Get out of the Old Testament free” card. They do this when they want to talk about slavery and genocide being a product of that foreign culture. Okay, but then haven’t you shed the Ten Commandments as well, since that’s also in the Old Testament?

The Old Testament is relevant today or it isn’t—it can’t be both ways.

As ancient legal codes go, the Mosaic law isn’t all that groundbreaking. It is predated by not only the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi but Mesopotamian law and Egyptian law. In fact, the pediment of the U.S. Supreme Court building, which many history revisionists claim holds the Ten Commandments, is actually a frieze of Moses along with two other ancient lawmakers, Solon (Athens) and Confucius (China). This artwork is shown in the photo above. And no, Moses isn’t holding the Ten Commandments but rather blank tablets. Moses is also depicted on a frieze inside the courtroom, but he is simply in a procession of 18 great lawmakers.

What if all people followed the basic conventions that society agrees are its moral foundation? That would be great, but if this happened, why give the credit to Christianity? That is, why point to morality and say, “Aha! That’s the good ol’ Ten Commandments they’re following!” No, morality comes from society. The Ten Commandments are a reflection of some of the best traits from society, not the other way around.

What if we discarded the religious baggage—important within Christianity but irrelevant to the secular, all-inclusive society—and distilled down social wisdom into a secular Ten Commandments? Here’s a version from A.C. Grayling’s Secular Bible.

1. Love well
2. Seek the good in all things
3. Harm no others
4. Think for yourself
5. Take responsibility
6. Respect nature
7. Do your utmost
8. Be informed
9. Be kind
10. Be courageous

At least, sincerely try.

NYC Atheists has an excellent version here (search for “Atheist Freedoms” on page 4). And here is Christopher Hitchens’ version (skip in the video to 6:30)

The Ten Commandments is nothing more than a fragment of an interesting historical document. An example from Georgia shows the problems with treating it as if it’s more than this. Poverty in that state has recently increased so that it is now the third-poorest state. What is its legislature spending time on? Getting the Ten Commandments in all public buildings, including schools.

I guess it’s easier than actually solving problems.

Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully
as when they do it from religious conviction.
— Pascal

Photo credit: djv2130

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  • “National Capitol,” Snopes.

Are Churches More Like Charities or Country Clubs?

Christian apologetics and atheismMost churches do good works—soup kitchens, food banks, and so on—so they’re like charities.  But they also provide a social connection like a country club.  Which is the better fit?

Let’s look at the financial statements of organizations that are clearly charities.  The American Red Cross has an annual budget of $3.3 billion.  Of this, 92% goes to program services, with the rest going to “management and general” and “fundraising.”  Or Save the Children—91% of its $450 million budget goes to program services.  Or World Vision—85% of $1 billion.  Or the Rotary Club of Eagle Grove Iowa—100% of $3.3 million.

Organizations that help the disadvantaged are just one kind of nonprofit.  The ACLU (86% of $70 million) defends individual rights and liberties.  Or, for an organization on the other side of the political aisle, take the Alliance Defense Fund (80% of $32 million).

Surely many country clubs host bake sales for good causes, organize projects that help charities, or even donate money, but let’s assume that the good works done to society by country clubs amounts to a few percent of income or less.  We have 80 to 100% of revenue going to good works for regular nonprofits vs. (say) 2% for country clubs—that’s why donations to nonprofits are tax exempt and dues to country clubs are not.

How do churches compare?  The short answer is, we don’t know.  With very few exceptions, the financial statements of churches and religious ministries are not available to the public.

But there are estimates.  For example:

Every year churches collect some $100 billion in donations. But most donors do not know that the average congregation in the U.S. gives only two percent of donated money to humanitarian projects. Some 98% goes to pay staff, upkeep of buildings, the priest’s car, robes, salary and housing.

This came from Roy Sablosky.  But he’s on the board of the American Humanist Association of Greater Sacramento.  Might he be biased?

Christianity Today is another source.  A survey gave this breakdown of the average church budget: 43% for salaries, 20% for facilities (mortgage, etc.), 16% missions, 9% programs, 6% administration and supplies, 3% denominational fees, 3% other.

So where is the money to good works?  Presumably “missions” includes this, but this is a nebulous category.  A dollar spent on the First Baptist Church soup kitchen certainly counts as a charitable expense, but the dollar spent supporting a missionary doesn’t.

That estimate of 2% to humanitarian projects may not be too far off.

These survey numbers are suspect in my mind because less than a quarter of the 1,184 surveys were returned.  Did churches who were embarrassed by their numbers—perhaps the fraction devoted to salaries or facilities was even higher—not bother to respond?  I’d like to have more reliable numbers, but when they’re kept secret, we simply don’t know.

What are churches embarrassed about that they need to make up excuses to avoid showing how they spend their tax-exempt donations?  Again, it’s hard to tell.  But there are estimates:

The January 2011 issue of the International Bulletin of Missionary Research reported that Christian religious leaders will commit an estimated $34 billion in financial fraud in 2011. 

(I presume that’s worldwide, not just in the U.S.)  And that’s just fraud.  The money going to inflated salaries, lavish living, and other embarrassing expenses may be a far larger amount.

There are groups within Christianity that are also working on financial transparency.  For example, MinistryWatch said,

We wish Senator Grassley success in his quest for the truth [in his investigation of six high-profile televangelists].  It is time for these televangelists to come clean; otherwise it could seem that they are running nothing more than money laundering schemes in the name of Christ.

But MinistryWatch has an uphill battle.  They’re told by fellow Christians that it’s not right for anyone to judge, that it’s not Christian to be critical, that examining a ministry shows distrust in God, and that they should focus on God and not the works of man.

But shouldn’t churches be on the forefront of modeling what’s right within society?  When pastors enumerate all that’s bad with American society today, the list should include the financial secrecy of their own organization.

The overseer must be above reproach as God’s steward
— Titus 1:7

See the first post in this series: What do Churches Have to Hide?

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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Pastors Speak Their Mind (and Flout the Rules)

Jesus, God, and all thatIt’s another dreaded election year, and the leaders of many religious organizations somehow feel put upon by the IRS because they can’t preach about politics.

But why?  No one forced tax-exempt donations on them—in fact, they took them willingly—so it’s surprising that they’re now chafing at the regulations that come along for the ride.  The solution is easy: if nonprofit status is a deal with the devil, then don’t accept nonprofit status.

The Internal Revenue Service makes clear that churches and pastors may organize non-partisan voter education activities, voter registration, and get-out-the-vote drives (with an emphasis on non-partisan).  Religious leaders speaking for themselves can say whatever they want, and they can speak “about important issues of public policy.”

However, all nonprofit organizations, including religious 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. Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made by or on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity. … Religious leaders cannot make partisan comments in official organization publications or at official church functions. …

[Nonprofits] 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.

But many pastors can’t accept this.  I don’t know if they honestly think that it’s unfair or if they figure that they’ve already tipped the playing field so much in their favor that they’ll try their luck for even more, but the Alliance Defense Fund has organized the annual Pulpit Freedom Sunday (October 7 this year).  On this day:

The pastors will exercise their First Amendment right to preach on the subject [of the moral qualifications of candidates seeking public office], despite federal tax regulations that prohibit intervening or participating in a political campaign. …

The point of the Pulpit Initiative is very simple: the IRS should not be the one making the decision by threatening to revoke a church’s tax-exempt status.  We need to get the government out of the pulpit.

Wow—strange thinking.  Tax-exempt status is granted by the government.  It’s a contract, not a right, and it comes with strings attached.  If we the public will be subsidizing an organization, we are entitled to limit its actions.  No one’s strong-arming the church, and they can drop both the nonprofit status and the strings attached any time they want.

To some extent, it’s a zero-sum game.  (For example, when Mormon desires for polygamy clashed with the needs of the state, someone had to lose.)  The head of the IRS addressed this conflict of tax-exempt status and freedom of speech:

Freedom of speech and religious liberty are essential elements of our democracy.  But the Supreme Court has in essence held that tax exemption is a privilege, not a right, stating, “Congress has not violated [an organization’s] First Amendment rights by declining to subsidize its First Amendment activities.”

If the IRS constraints against speaking out on political issues are a problem, then don’t enter into a contract with the IRS.  Drop your nonprofit status, tell church members that they can no longer deduct donations, and then you can give your opinion about any candidate or issue.

But to keep your nonprofit status, you must follow the rules.

See the first post in this series: What do Churches Have to Hide?

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Church Accountability

Does God exist?In November, 2007, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) asked six high-profile televangelist organizations to provide more information about how they work.  Grassley said: “My goal is to help improve accountability and good governance so tax-exempt groups maintain public confidence in their operations.”

The investigated organizations (I’ll use the names of the public faces) were:

  • Joyce Meyer.  She responded fully to Grassley’s questions, joined the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA), and discloses her annual revenue to MinistryWatch (about $110 million per year).
  • Benny Hinn also gave complete answers to Grassley’s questions.  However, MinistryWatch gave him a transparency grade of F.  His ministry’s income is about the same as Meyer’s.
  • Kenneth Copeland: incomplete information.  He claimed (go here and search “Torpedoed!”) that his 40-year-old ministry has taken in a total of about $1.5 billion.  MinistryWatch grade: F.
  • Creflo Dollar: incomplete information.  MinistryWatch grade: F.
  • Eddie Long: incomplete information and not listed in MinistryWatch.
  • Paula White: incomplete information and not listed in MinistryWatch.

Let’s dwell on this a moment.  A U.S. senator asks for information, as the Senate Finance Committee is empowered to do, and he is (more or less) given the finger.  And there is no fallout?  These ministries can tap dance away from this request for information with no meaningful loss of face?  The faithful still shower them with $100 million per year?  What kind of disconnect from reality is this?

This is a contract between U.S. taxpayers and these nonprofit organizations, mediated by the IRS.  We provide the nonprofit status and, in return, they prove that they deserve that status.  If religious organizations policed themselves and they made their finances public (by voluntarily submitting their information to the IRS like all other nonprofits), this wouldn’t be a problem.  But they don’t.  With $100 billion in tax-exempt contributions to the religion industry every year, shielded from inspection, it’s obvious that this exemption is a bad idea.

A memo prepared by Sen. Grassley’s staff highlights some of the foundational principles that are relevant to this discussion.

The Constitution does not require the government to exempt churches from federal income taxation or from filing tax and information returns.


Requiring churches to file an annual information return does not offend either the Free Exercise Clause or the Establishment Clause [of the First Amendment].

Some ministries have complained that an obligatory filing would entangle the government in church business, but the opposite may be more accurate.  Today, the IRS must define what a church is, since the legal code doesn’t.  For example, after a long legal battle, Scientology was granted tax-exempt status as a church.  Putting churches in the same bin as other nonprofits would eliminate this unwelcome role for the IRS.

The Grassley memo admits that there should be no constitutional problem with a level playing field, but it argues that some problems will remain:

  • Eliminating the exemption “would unnecessarily burden the overwhelming majority of churches.”  Why?  The 1.5 million nonprofits with less than $100,000 in annual income can follow the rules.  Surely a church that can keep its books can fill out a four-page 990-EZ form.  The only tough part is taking that deep breath and disclosing to the world how you spend your income.
  • This would burden the IRS’s Exempt Organizations Office, which is stretched as it is.  When a ministry is simply a piggy bank for a few people at the top, no laws are being broken.  Things change if we can force the churches to commit publicly.  Let’s let a little sunshine in and let public scrutiny (and possible condemnation) do its work.  Could a sleazy ministry lie?  Of course, but when it does, it’s now breaking the law.  At that point, there’s a crime that the IRS can go after and assets that can help fund the process.
  • This would be contrary to the intent of Congress.  True, but the desires of Congress can change.  If ordinary Christians, embarrassed by the secrecy of churches, demanded a level playing field for all nonprofits, Congress just might turn around.  Without public demand, there will be no energy for this initiative.

The ECFA is a good step.  Though it’s expensive to join, it provides what amounts to a Good Housekeeping seal of approval to ministries that abide by its code.  But even they don’t demand that salaries be revealed, and members need only provide financial information on written request.  It’s a baby step, when a level playing field is the obvious solution.

The IRS has a form 990 and 1.5 million nonprofit organizations already using it.  It works.  It should be our window into the operation of all nonprofits, including churches.

What are the next steps?  An atheist organization like the Freedom From Religion Foundation could file lawsuits, but a push for this from within the Christian community would be far more effective.  Christians, you have the power.  Aren’t you embarrassed by being lumped in with the worst of the televangelists?  Wouldn’t you like to see some public scrutiny on Scientology and other organizations hiding behind this loophole?

You won’t like me when I’m angry,
because I always back up my rage
with facts and documented sources.
— the Credible Hulk

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What do Churches Have to Hide?

IRS filings don't help show that God existsThe Freedom From Religion Foundation is a freethought organization that has won some high-profile lawsuits that support the separation of church and state.  It is also known for displaying freethought statements to balance religious Christmas messages on state property.

Want to know what the revenue of the FFRF is?  For 2010, it was $2,234,307.  Exactly.

Want to know how I know that?  I looked it up; it’s public information.  That’s true for all U.S. nonprofits.  All nonprofits, that is, except churches and other religious organizations.

Isn’t it startling that church leaders, who supposedly believe that the all-knowing Accountant in the Sky will judge them eternally for how ethically they spend the money given by parishioners, are embarrassed to show their financial records to the rest of us?  That they want church donations to be tax exempt but refuse to show the public (who is picking up the slack for the missing taxes) how they spend this money?  What do you suppose they have to hide?

The Freedom From Religion Foundation’s form 990 has a bold “Open to Public Inspection” at the top.  The form gives the salaries of each staff member, to the dollar.  It shows revenue, expenses, cash in the bank, mortgages, and lots more financial details.  They seem to shoulder this burden pretty well, and I think churches can, too.

Go to GuideStar, the Foundation Center, or similar organizations to look up any nonprofit to which you’re considering a donation to check how they spend their money.

Any nonprofit, that is, except churches.

Let’s remember what religion we’re talking about.  It’s the religion that tells the story of the rich man who was (tragically) too attached to his wealth to follow Jesus’s command, “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (Mark 10:17–31).  It’s the religion in which Jesus will say to the worthy people, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matt. 25:31–46).  And, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:25).  And, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth … but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven … for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:19–21).

Apparently Jesus didn’t care much for rich people but cared greatly for the poor.  How do you suppose he would react to churches and ministries being secretive today about how they spend the money given to them?  About churches exempting themselves from the requirement to open their books?

There are some groups trying to fix this problem.  MinistryWatch asks for financial information from ministries and publicizes the results.  For example, Greg Koukl’s Stand to Reason gets an A rating, and they deserve praise for doing the right thing.  But this is just a baby step.  First, MinistryWatch has only 600 ministries in their list when there are an estimated 335,000 congregations in the U.S.  Second, the financial information is still not as thorough as that provided on Form 990s by nonreligious nonprofits.

And third, many of the ministries don’t get an A rating.  In fact, those who get an F (typically because they ignored MinistryWatch’s request for information) are a Who’s Who of high-profile televangelists and religious newsmakers: Benny Hinn, Creflo Dollar, John Hagee, Kenneth Copeland, TD Jakes, Trinity Broadcasting Network, Rod Parsley, Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral, Harold Camping’s Family Radio, and more.  They all got an F.  Doesn’t this evasion reflect badly on all religious organizations?

Some churches are open about their finances, but only to members.  According to one survey, 92% of churches provide financial information upon request to members.  Why is this not 100%?  And what good is this to the U.S. taxpayer who wants to verify the claimed benefit that churches provide a good to society that earns them nonprofit status?  Compare this with the financial records of the more than 1.5 million ordinary nonprofits easily accessible in a single database.

Let’s make a simple, logical change—a change that helps churches look better.  This cloud of doubt hangs over every church.  The change costs churches and other ministries very little and makes things fair, and it shows that they have nothing to hide.  Remove the exemption allowing churches to avoid providing financial information.

Some ministries will have to clean up their acts, but isn’t that a good thing?  Doesn’t this benefit the Christians at the churches that spend their income honorably?

Photo credit: IRS

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Related links:

  • “Christian views on poverty and wealth,” Wikipedia.
  • “4th annual ‘State of the Plate’ Survey,” State of the Plate, 3/27/12.