Church $ State: Part 2 - White-washing Prophets and the Kings who Lead Them

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Biblical Background

It was the Prophet Ezekiel (22:27-28), in the context of predicting God's immanent judgement on Israel, who lamented not only the unjust and cruel behavior of the nation's political leadership but also that, "Her prophets whitewash these deeds for them by false visions and lying divinations" and "They say, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says’—when the Lord has not spoken."  Later Jesus was likely alluding to this imagery when he said, "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead..." (Matthew 23:27).

Access, Agenda, and Affluence - who is really in charge?

In Part 1 of this series, I challenged both the value proposition and the constitutionality of public subsidies for religious congregations.  Now for the vast majority of clergy and their congregations, I assume that the defense of their tax breaks is motivated more by an assumed inherent right as well as fear of the financial loss that would ensue should these benefits be eliminated.  But other so-called religious leaders, the kinds of which Ezekiel and Jesus spoke to, are driven by something deeper.  There you will find a lust for unparalleled access to the halls of power, the authority to mandate their agenda, and the affluence that comes with being richly rewarded for their political loyalty.  I would argue that ultimately this is all self-deception, an illusion of control, and that like Satan tempting Jesus, the end result is a one-sided deal where Kings clearly rule over the prophets who endorse them.

'nothing new under the sun'

That religious leaders would provide theological cover to a political agenda is nothing new in American history.  The whole concept of 'manifest destiny', which is still an ideological stronghold among conservative 'Christians', is sourced in an errant conviction first articulated by John Winthrop, who served as Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  Historian Donald Scott notes that it was there that Winthrop drew a direct parallel between the covenant God made with Israel and the oath being taken by himself and his fellow colonizers.  In return, they received the Divine gift of the land which they called 'New England'.  Both he and later the legendary preacher of the First Great Awakening, Jonathan Edwards, would apply to the promise of this new America the words Jesus used to describe his disciples--that they were to be a "city...set on a hill".  Tragically the application of this commission from God led these chosen people to either actively support or passively approve the great atrocities their government would execute, such as the mass genocide of Native Americans.

More recent in American history, we've seen this stubborn cancer return in the form of the mostly evangelical 'religious right'.  Ronald Reagan would follow in Winthrop and Edward's footsteps and famously quote the same "city...on a hill" Scripture on the night before his first election and again in his last day in office.  He showed a masterful ability to woo evangelicals, convincing them that his political philosophy was both a cure to their worst apocalyptic nightmares and the key to their most cherished post-millennial, utopian dreams. Like all effective politicians, evangelicals would be the hero in Reagan's narrative of a resurgent America as long as they expressed their faith by voting for himself and the Republican party.  The actual teachings of Jesus would increasingly take a back seat, soon to be replaced by the pyrotechnic preaching and prognostications of talking heads on Fox News and the anxious voices of conservative radio, many of them religiously affiliated like Salem Media Group's nationwide network of stations arrogantly called 'The Answer'.

kings need an insider

But for all of this to work, Kings need to find a man on the inside.  Using the Christian Scriptures, you need someone who thoroughly rejects Jesus' teachings that serving others is the way to greatness.  Someone who will flagrantly ignore any parts of their sacred text that will interfere with either the prospective King's assent to power (i.e. election), or the agenda the newly-installed ruler wishes to execute.  And for Donald Trump, one man truly lowered himself to the occasion, that person being the Reverend Franklin Graham, son of the late American icon, Billy Graham.  Graham deftly went about, touting his non-partisan commitment to God's agenda, which just so happened to mirror the fear-mongering rhetoric and bigoted policies Trump kept trotting out, such as their ban on all Muslim immigration.  Trump and Graham teamed together to brilliantly play on the conspiracy theories surrounding those evil 'liberals' that really were just cover for the anxiety that mostly white evangelicals were experiencing at the demographic loss of social and political clout.  All those foreigners and gay people were getting in the way of their manifest destiny.  In contrast, Trump promised to give back to them "power" and "Christmas".  Meanwhile, Graham launched out on his "Decision America Tour" to unite Christians in praying for our nation, though one of the key objectives was to get people out to vote.  He didn't have to explicitly endorse Trump; he used just the right kind of language and the psychologically trained evangelical audiences connected the Pavlovian dots to the hysteria of the religious right's narrative, a story that has been drilled into their heads for the past forty years via Focus on the Family, The 700 Club, and Liberty University to name a few.  The end result was Trump getting a whopping 81% of the white evangelical vote, effectively delivering him the White House.

the subjects are rewarded

Then corrupt Kings do as they always have done for their loyal subjects: give them just enough rewards to numb them to their moral compromise.  Reverend Johnnie Moore of the Southern Baptist Church bragged about how the "front door" of the White House was always "open"--ACCESS.   Jay Sekulow, who has now gone on to be one of Trumps lawyers, was as giddy as a school boy when Trump announced his de facto Muslim travel ban--AGENDA.  But what about AFFLUENCE?  Well if you are a political novice you have likely heard of the phrase 'crony capitalism'.  The Business Dictionary defines it as such:

An economy that is nominally free-market, but allows for preferential regulation and other favorable government intervention based on personal relationships. In such a system, the false appearance of "pure" capitalism is publicly maintained to preserve the exclusive influence of well-connected individuals.

Well now feast your eyes on 'crony religion-ism'.  Because after the Presidential Inauguration Committee identified a surplus of unspent funds from the money raised for Inauguration festivities, where do you think a chunk of that went?  One million dollars to Samaritan's Purse, the humanitarian organization led by none other than Franklin Graham.  Hey, that's $999,800 more than the present day value of thirty pieces of ancient Roman silver coins!  Hopefully some of that will help with Graham's annual compensation of $713,846.  Of course it was for hurricane relief and I'm sure that none of what Graham effectively did for Trump prior to the election was a factor in this decision.

saving faith from $

So we end where we started.  In Part 1 I began by saying that, "Nothing converts faith to religion quicker than a perceived need for power or money."  So what can we do to try to limit the likelihood of this happening?  Well on the private side, we can begin by being more discerning when it comes to giving to religious organizations.  We can start by inquiring as to how effective they are with our charitable donations.  And certainly if there is evidence that leads you to believe they are engaged in crony religion-ism, I highly recommend you inform their Board that if it doesn't stop your checks will.  But I want to conclude by returning to our initial focus on the public subsidization of religion and some actual legislative proposals that I think would go along way in preserving faith and advancing a more honorable government.

  1. Property and income (donations or sales revenue) tax breaks would only be available for congregations and clergy in proportion to their investment of property space along with program expenses, to include supplies, equipment and paid staff hours, to the general welfare of their communities.  This charitable activity must be clearly separated from any effort to evangelize the beneficiaries of the congregation's services.  Churches may be randomly audited by the IRS to ensure that those claiming such a deduction in taxable income and assets are in compliance.  If it is proven that a church has falsely claimed tax deductions, they will repay the taxes owed and as a penalty lose the ability to claim tax breaks for the following year.
  2. Conservatives are always expressing their desire to simplify the tax code.  I'm down for that!  So let's eliminate smaller subsidies for religions organizations, such as the housing deduction for clergy as well as their ability to opt out of Social Security or Medicaid.
  3. Any tax subsidy is forfeited should the clergy and congregation engage in distinctly partisan activities during official church services.  In other words, Congress and the President need to preserve and ensure the full enforcement of The Johnson Amendment.  
  4. No funds associated with the office of a specific politician or a political party can be 'donated' to a charity, religious or secular.  So, for example, if their are future surpluses for Presidential Inauguration Committees, use it to pay down the national debt and not to payback your religious buddies.
  5. Also in Part 1, I affirmed the value of partial public funding for public-private partnerships which further common social and educational services.  However, I believe that strict adherence to full non-discriminatory practices should apply to faith-based organizations receiving public funds.  There are two primary applications to this. 1) Any staff who is funded in part or in whole for the purpose of delivering social services or education must not be required to adhere to that particular organization's faith or lifestyle expectations.  Should a faith-based organization desire that a particular staff position be filled by someone who shares the organization's historic faith convictions and lifestyles, that position must be funded entirely from their own private resources.  2) There can be no discriminatory qualifications for potential beneficiaries of a social or educational service that is funded in part or in whole with public money.  So for example, as long as a prospective student is not enrolling in a ministerial degree whose faculty and support staff are fully funded by private revenue, the religious school is not allowed to refuse admission.  If they do, they are in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and will be banned from receiving Federal (Pell) or State public grants.
  6. Pass legislation that would make it clear that Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 includes an individual's desired sexual orientation.  This would include eliminating the currently allowed exemptions.

I've commented elsewhere that tampering with idols can be a very dangerous business and I'm pretty sure that these proposals do exactly that.  But if we are really concerned about the condition of faith and government, I think it is high time we addresses the financial relationships that exist between the two.  It seems like when either gives the other money and favors, they both end up being lazy and greedy.