Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The UCC, Obama, and the IRS

You may or may not have heard that the United Church of Christ is being investigated by the IRS for having U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama speak at General Synod last summer in Hartford. If not, here’s the short version:

The Internal Revenue Service has notified the United Church of Christ's national offices in Cleveland, Ohio, that the IRS has opened an investigation into U.S. Sen. Barack Obama's address at the UCC's 2007 General Synod as the church engaging in "political activities."

In the
IRS letter dated Feb. 20, the IRS said it was initiating a church tax inquiry "because reasonable belief exists that the United Church of Christ has engaged in political activities that could jeopardize its tax-exempt status."
According to the IRS letter:

Our concerns are based on articles posted on several websites including the church’s which state that United States Presidential Candidate Senator Barack Obama addressed nearly 10,000 church members gathered at the United Church of Christ’s biennial General Synod at the Hartford Civic Center, on June 23, 2007. In addition, 40 Obama volunteers staffed campaign tables outside the center to promote his campaign.
Okay, so the issue is pretty straightforward according to the above. Obama was invited as a member of the UCC to speak at Synod, and it is worth noting that he was invited long before he announced his candidacy. However, according to the IRS letter, apparently that point doesn't matter. He was a presidential candidate the moment that he took the stage. So it doesn’t seem like much can be done about that point. Still, many candidates speak to many church bodies, so it seems to me that there has to be more in question than Obama's mere presence to warrant any kind of disciplinary measure.

On the day that he was scheduled to speak, Edith Guffey approached the podium earlier in the day to remind everyone that he would not be speaking as a candidate, but as a church member. As such, no signs, buttons, or whatever else were allowed in the hall during his speech. And they meant it, as I saw none in the hall. So in the case of there being no visible campaign propaganda during the speech, the UCC is safe.

The public sidewalk was a different story, and there probably wasn’t a whole lot that could have been done about that. Nevertheless, no one campaigned in the UCC’s space. So I’m betting that the part about the volunteers will be thrown out, too.

Finally--and the part that the IRS will look at the closest—the only part of this event that may get the UCC in trouble is the speech itself. After I got back from Synod, this is what I wrote on this blog way back in June 2007:

To be honest, I was disappointed. Many others I talked to were as well. First, it did more than once come off as a campaign speech even though we were told earlier in the day that it wouldn't be. Second, he used some of the same lines and phrases that I've read and heard him use elsewhere: "As I kneeled under that cross on the south side of Chicago..." It seemed so canned in places. While I don't doubt his sincerity as a person of faith and as one who wants to help change American politics, this moment was not what I and others hoped that it would be.
At the time, I reacted strongly to familiar words and phrases such as what I mention above. In addition, there was some part of me that bristled slightly at allusions to his candidacy, wondering if this might come back to bite the UCC in some way.

There were, in fact, at least two explicit references to Obama’s candidacy. My brain glossed over the first for some reason:

It's been several months now since I announced I was running for president. In that time, I've had the chance to talk with Americans all across this country. And I've found that no matter where I am, or who I'm talking to, there's a common theme that emerges. It's that folks are hungry for change – they're hungry for something new. They're ready to turn the page on the old politics and the old policies – whether it's the war in Iraq or the health care crisis we're in, or a school system that's leaving too many kids behind despite the slogans.
The reason that I glossed over this probably has to do with context. His mentioning of his candidacy in this paragraph is in the context of his observations during his travels and his conversations with people around the country. One might be able to argue that this is the setup for his platform, and that may be a fair interpretation. But in this instance there is no clear appeal for votes, and seems to be more of a setup for his observations.

The second mention is the one that I definitely noticed and at which I bristled quite a bit more:

Our conscience cannot rest so long as nearly 45 million Americans don't have health insurance and the millions more who do are going bankrupt trying to pay for it. I have made a solemn pledge that I will sign a universal health care bill into law by the end of my first term as president that will cover every American and cut the cost of a typical family's premiums by up to $2500 a year. That's not simply a matter of policy or ideology – it's a moral commitment.

Okay, this is much more of an overt political promise. Note that he finished the paragraph trying to couch it in more personal terms about his moral beliefs. Still, this is the reference that burned my ears, and may understandably get us in trouble.

So, taking all of this together, does the UCC have a legitimate reason to be concerned about the possible outcome of this investigation? As much as it pains me to say it, I think it does. I think that the sidewalk campaigning should be thrown out and I thought that we were even okay having him there even though he was unavoidably known to be a candidate.

However, after reviewing parts of the speech combined with my initial reaction after I’d heard it, Obama was campaigning that afternoon. The second reference to his candidacy is difficult to deny being a platform promise.

Incidentally, his campaign called the speech “his first major address on faith and politics as a presidential candidate,” and while one can’t or shouldn’t fault the UCC for the campaign’s spin, one probably can if the speech itself sounds like his first major address on faith and politics as a presidential candidate. Didn't people check it over before Obama stood up to give it?

What will come of this if the IRS agrees that this was truly a campaign speech? That, I’m not sure of. I’m not good at paying attention when I’m having my taxes done at Jackson-Hewitt, let alone the specifics of what happens to a non-profit agency if they violate a boundary. I do wonder, however, whether the UCC will really lose its status over this. Considering that Synod organizers did seem to take many precautions (not all that they could have taken, mind you), anything as severe as losing non-profit status doesn't seem to fit the violation committed. I'm guessing that, at the worst, we'll be fined or put on probation or something.

I also wonder what happens to all those churches, particularly in the South, who constantly have candidates use their pulpits. But hey, maybe it'd be too troublesome to ask about that.

(This is to say nothing of the flap surrounding Jeremiah Wright. You can get your fill of that on the UCC website and forums.)