November 18, 2007

Right Question, Wrong Questioner

I have little patience for wealthy televangelists who flaunt their riches as a badge of honor while representing a religion that eschews material pursuits. They deserve the criticism they receive for their self-aggrandizement -- but some of their more notable critics have little room to talk. Congress wants the IRS to take on televangelists while their own members greedily suck up lobbyist money and repay them in billions of dollars in pork:

A U.S. senator is putting a new and troubling spin on the question: "What would Jesus drive?" Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who is pressing tax-exempt churches to be more open about their finances, told The Times that "Jesus came into the city of Jerusalem on a donkey." Given that example, Grassley asked, "Do these ministers really need Bentleys and Rolls-Royces to spread the Gospel?"

Actually, they do, according to a politician who attends a Georgia church that has attracted the attention of the Senate Finance Committee, on which Grassley is the ranking Republican. "It's important," state Rep. Randal Mangham told Times staff writer Jenny Jarvie, "for kids to see you don't have to sell drugs to drive a nice car."

You don't have to accept that rationale for putting the preacher behind the wheel of a Bentley to take the larger point: Government should tread carefully in trying to decide what constitutes a legitimate religious expenditure. Because they enjoy tax-exempt status, churches and other religious organizations rightly owe the Internal Revenue Service an accounting of their finances to guard against fraud and profiteering. But regulators -- and members of Congress -- shouldn't impose their own theological notions on America's dizzyingly diverse religious culture.

It's not that I object to the criticisms themselves. After all, I find the $23,000 marble-topped toilet at Joyce Meyer Ministries just as objectionable as any other rational person would. However, Joyce Meyer spends monies donated to her by her congregation, and the people who comprise that congregation can choose not to send the money. The question of whether religious organizations should be free from taxation exists separately from the uses made with those contributions, with the exception of clearly illegal or politically partisan activities.

Don't like Joyce Meyer buying five-figure commodes? Don't send her money. That's pretty simple.

Unfortunately, it's not so simple with Congress. We don't get to decide not to send them money, and the IRS would take a much more dim view of those who try that approach. Instead of worrying about what Joyce Meyer does with freely-given donations to her organization, perhaps Congress should take more of an interest about what they themselves do with our tax money, taken at threat of force. For example, we could look at why Charles Grassley found it necessary to add 18 earmarks to the recently-vetoed Labor/HHS bill, amounting to over $10 million. The least expensive of these pork-barrel projects would cover more than three Joyce Meyer Signature Loos to educate Iowa students on "the role of international trade in the U.S. economy”.

This doesn't even take into consideration the continuing tolerance of Ted Stevens and William Jefferson in the chambers of Congress. Grassley wonders what Jesus would drive, noting that He rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. Grassley somehow neglects to mention how Jesus also drove the moneychangers from the temple, and doesn't ask why Congress doesn't do the same at the temple of our democratic republic. We'd prefer Beltway politicians attempting to show reformist zeal concentrate on the beam in their own eyes, and kick the asses out of Washington DC.


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