On October 31, 2004, a retired clergyman did what clergy have done across the ages: he preached a sermon that asked a new form of the age-old question, What would Jesus do? His answers triggered national press coverage and a letter from the IRS that questioned his church’s tax-exempt status. A year later, the congregation and leaders across the religious spectrum await the IRS’s determination, which could have implications for every congregation in the United States.
The preacher in this story is Rev. Dr. George F. Regas, rector emeritus of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California, a congregation that has long been at the forefront of progressive and social activist causes, including opposition to America’s recent wars. On the Sunday before the presidential election of 2004, Regas invited the congregation to imagine Jesus as a participant in a debate between President George W. Bush and Democratic challenger Senator John F. Kerry. In Regas’s telling, Jesus radically challenged the values that lay beneath the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq and recent tax cuts that served the rich and hurt the poor. Disclaiming any intention to endorse one candidate over the other, Regas nonetheless encouraged his listeners to carry all the values of Jesus into the voting booth on Election Day. The IRS interpreted the sermon as a “campaign intervention” in violation of its policy prohibiting any tax-exempt not-for-profit organization from telling people how to vote. (To read the sermon and track the subsequent actions taken by All Saints Church’s vestry and current rector, go to www.allsaints-pas.org.)
According to the Christian Century, the IRS is scrutinizing approximately 20 other U.S. congregations for possible breach of the thin line of separation between church and state. All of us who care about congregations and their freedom to state their religious truths and practice their deepest beliefs and values have reasons to pay attention. At a minimum, congregational self-interests—both to continue to benefit from tax exemption and to pursue the religious freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment—are at stake. Much more important are the deep moral and spiritual realities that lie within our congregations, the realities of God’s justice, mercy, and will. Congregations that hem in those realities—whether for reasons of social acceptance or political power—risk loss of integrity and destruction of soul. And the world suffers the loss of alternatives and new possibility.
At the heart of American congregations are traditions that raise the big questions. Sometimes those questions are pointed at the status quo, the powers that be, those who govern, those who possess great wealth. At other times, they target our religious communities themselves—and their leaders—for failures to ask the big questions of themselves, for conniving with the powers that be, for trimming their sails in order to coast with prevailing cultural and political winds.
So, what about the big questions? Are we questioning the pervasive individualism and self-idolatry of our consumer cultures? Do we challenge the hegemony of marketplace fundamentalism in our lives? What about the role of the U.S. in the 21st-century world? The death penalty? The obscene gap between the world’s rich and poor? Preemptive war? Are we asking these questions in our congregations? Or do we avoid them at all costs? In most congregations that I know, the answers are mixed. Sometimes the big questions are raised, but at other times—too many times—they are tabled or ignored for fear that they may be more than we can handle, that they may cost us more than we can pay, that they may do us in.
A year ago, Cornell West wrote a book that raises—as Regas’s sermon did—deep questions about the character and future of the American experiment. Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight against Imperialism probes the deep questions in our national soul, questions about how our democratic values intertwine with the destructive impulses of imperialism and racism. The danger West fears—and we should too—is that the imperialist and racist weeds that have been present in the American garden from the beginning may choke off the tender plant of democracy that we all value.
As West probes those complex and frightening realities, he suggests three resources that lie within our American tradition that can make a difference: Socratic questioning, prophetic witness, and tragicomic hope. Deep, challenging, and ongoing questioning that unmasks the assumptions and motivations that lie behind our actions; prophetic opposition to policies, practices, traditions, and beliefs that are out of alignment with the core values we espouse; and tragicomic hope that can look our failure, complicity, and wrongdoing in the eye and still believe that a new creation will emerge—these are moral pillars that need to be retrieved if our country and our congregations are to fulfill their vocations in a time of national and global chaos, terror, and despair. Neither our nation nor our congregations will automatically turn to these pillars. Rather, official and unofficial leaders who embody these capacities must emerge and wake up our people and our institutions.
Rev. Dr. James P. Wind is president of the Alban Institute.