During Barack Obama’s presidency, stern moral pronouncements spilled from the mouths and pens of famous preachers condemning him as the devil’s agent. When Obama retired from office, these same preachers welcomed Donald Trump as the fulfillment of God’s will. “God’s giving us another chance – perhaps our last chance to truly make America great again,” swooned Robert Jeffress.
Many of these preachers, like Jeffress, use their pulpits and ample treasuries to elevate a particular political candidate and political agenda. Why? Because they can.
Some of these churches have become political juggernauts largely because their tax-exempt status helps to enrich them and gives them leverage to purchase favor from pliant politicians.
Churches merit a tax-exempt status if they are ministering to the spiritual needs of their congregations. And if a particular church disagrees with legislation, say, on contentious issues like abortion rights or same-sex marriage, they should be free to state their views within their faith community.
But when they take these views into the political marketplace and campaign for (or against) a particular politician, a party or a controversial issue, they should lose their tax-exempt status.
This should apply to all religious sects. When churches use a portion of their millions not paid to the U.S. treasury to support a partisan political cause or candidate, they not only inflate their own wealth and power, they also deprive the government of funds that could have been used, say, on education or health care or reducing the deficit.
A powerful group of preachers like Joel Osteen, James Dodson, Ted Haggard, Rick Warren, David Barton reach a devoted audience not only through their mega-churches but also through the media. While they give solace and meaning to many peoples’ lives, they also acquire enormous wealth and political power in the process.
One standout, Franklin Graham, president and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, went public, suggesting that Obama was not truly a Christian — believing at his core that Obama was a Muslim — in spite of the fact that Franklin was present when Obama and his father, Billy, prayed Christian prayers together.
In an ABC interview, Graham stated, “The seed of Islam is passed through the father like the seed of Judaism is passed through the mother. He was born a Muslim; his father gave him a Muslim name.”
Though hostile to Obama, Graham favored Trump, even campaigned in 10 states with him, casually dismissing the allegations of sexual abuse hounding Trump, the “Access Hollywood” tape, his affairs with and payoffs to porn stars and mistresses. Graham said Trump apologized and is “a changed person.”
Graham’s organization is tax exempt.
Another popular preacher, Tony Perkins, denounced Obama’s “disdain for Christianity,” and his policies that “had given the green light to Christian persecution.” He urged Christians who had voted for Obama in 2008 to repent by voting against his re-election.
Yet when Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, was asked about Trump’s multiple extramarital affairs and hush money payments, he said that evangelicals have a “transactional” relationship with Trump and had given him a “mulligan” for his past behavior.
Perkins’ organization is tax exempt.
Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, speaking at the 2016 Republican Convention, stated that Obama was one of the greatest threats to America, even suggesting recently that Obama should be arrested. He also shared this post: “Christ has finally delivered us a man worthy of Grace in Donald J. Trump. After eight long years of Obama’s tyrannical rule, we finally have a man who prays like us, serves like us, and looks like us.”
Falwell, like Perkins, sees his relationship with Trump as “transactional.” In fact, a July 19 article in The Miami Herald cited a 2016 “transaction” between Falwell and Trump’s quondam fixer, Michael Cohen, to allegedly “fix” circumstances surrounding a very dodgy real estate deal featuring tabloid-like details. (The timing of Cohen’s ”fixing” conveniently preceded Falwell’s change of heart about an evangelical endorsement of Trump at the 2016 Republican primary, “which Cohen says he helped engineer.”)
Falwell heartily supports Trump’s un-Christian immigration policy and recently attacked theologian Russell Moore for criticizing the administration’s inhumane detention of migrant children in filthy and unsanitary conditions.
Falwell fulminated: “Who are you @drmoore? Have you ever made a payroll? Have you ever built an organization of any type from scratch? What gives you the authority to speak on any issue? I’m being serious. You’re nothing but an employee – a bureaucrat.”
Falwell’s Liberty University is tax exempt.
Money in politics corrupts our political system. Tax-exempt money spent by churches to buy politicians for their partisan agenda corrupts not only our political system but also the churches themselves.
William Shaw, of Pinehurst, is the author of “Fellowship of Dust: Retracing the WWII Journey of Sergeant Frank Shaw.”