The IRS scandal sounds quite scandalous to citizens who are accustomed to believe that government must obey the laws and act with integrity. The scandal of the government wiretapping and hacking the email of journalists boggles the minds of people accustomed to think of journalists as the watchdog of government on behalf of the citizens. Attentive readers and listeners feel the hackles on the back of their necks rising in response that something not quite named that feels sinister and disturbing. The spectacle of a woman at the center of the IRS controversy declaring “I have done nothing wrong,” and then taking the fifth like a Mafia don makes people who live on Main Street nervous.
In the United States, we have until recently prided ourselves that our government was itself governed by law. The Constitution and the body of federal law applies as surely to our officials as it does to us. Until recently, people felt they did not need to fear the government, because the government was subject to the same law as everyone else. Stories about a federal agency targeted citizens who want to organize for charitable purposes or targeting journalists who want to get the facts behind the news they report daily are worrisome. Christians who have always suspected politics of being a dirty game feel justified in smugly saying “I told you so,” but there has not been any murmuring about one aspect of the situation that should be worrisome. They may not be well-informed about what happens in other countries. There are many countries around the world where churches are so highly regulated that even an unofficial prayer meeting is a legal infraction on the level of a charitable organization in the US trying to claim tax-exempt status without having qualified officially. In some countries, a Christian church that has actually registered can nevertheless be summarily shut down. A church that wants to be registered may feel that it has been singled out for attention due to unwarranted requests for additional forms and membership lists and copies of worship materials.
In countries where the government considers itself above the law, there is no recourse for citizens abused in the same manner as the non-profits applying for tax-exempt status in the USA. In other countries where the government is above the law, news reports must be compliant with the government message. Reporters suspected of non-compliance have their email monitored, their phone calls checked, and risk arrest or worse. In many countries, people targeted by government have a way of simply disappearing. American Christians have not seen anything like this and are quick to reject suggestions that it could happen in the USA. Sadly, anyone who reads news of the persecuted church around the world has seen things like this and worse things, all perpetrated as the legal acts of the government involved. American Christians, who have had good reason to wonder what the federal government means by the definition it uses for a religious exemption in the healthcare law, should look abroad for some forewarning of the sort of things governments do when they start defining religion and putting it under regulatory control.
Below is a short list of some issues that are eerily parallel to the bureaucratic hullabaloo associated with tax-exempt status for non-profits in the US:
- Targeted groups were asked to provide membership lists and donor lists, documentation not required for groups that were not targeted.
- Further, the donor lists of 501 ( c ) 4 groups are supposedly confidential, which makes a request for such lists illegal.
- Targeted groups were challenged on the basis of religious elements, such as prayer, and the groups were asked to provide the contents of prayers.
- Targeted groups were asked to provide member lists, plans for membership drives, and the names of people that might join or be invited to join.
- Bureaucratic strategies to delay official completion of registration included “lost” applications or unofficial holds on processing.
- Targeted groups were asked to identify people that might hear presentations, or participate in future educational activities.
Delays of a year were not uncommon, and in some cases the delay continued for two or three years.
Governments who want to suppress unwanted political and religious views in other countries follow the same practices.
- Claims of lost applications
- Claims of missing or incorrect information on applications
- Repeated requests for verification of the same information on applications
- Demands for documentation considerably in excess of the documentation required on the form
- Deliberate delays in processing applications
- Repeated inquiries about the status of an application are politely deferred to a later date
- Press reports on religious issues are suppressed and non-compliant reporters and publishers are arrested or at the very least spied upon (AP leak scandal/wiretap scandal)
There is a wealth of information available to inform Christians who wonder what it might be like to be subject to a government administrative bureaucracy for churches. However, a more pleasant way to learn about the situation is to read Martin Roth’s excellent book Coptic Martyr. Roth’s story details are fictitious, but his event details are quite accurate. In fact, given the news out of Egypt lately, Roth’s story may be considered a mild version of the way things work for a Christian church in a Muslim-dominated country. Roth’s novel Brother Half Angel tells a comparable story of the situation in a secular state such as China.
The allegation of scandal in the IRS is strongly disputed by all participants and will not be sorted out any time soon. It bears close watching regardless of your political view, because the problem is not who was targeted: the problem is that a federal agency targets anyone. The IRS has a single job to do: administer the law. It is not the job of the IRS to prevent anyone from obtaining tax-exempt status; it is the job of the IRS to certify tax-exempt status to each applicant who provides the information required by the application process. Demands for additional information required at the behest of the official who is processing the application without any legal or regulatory authority for such a request are illegal. Yet the power of the government and the applicant’s fear of the government are both so strong that few applicants have the courage to stand up against the onslaught.
Christians who have been flummoxed by the behavior of the federal government in regard to the Affordable Care Act would do well to pay attention to the allegation of scandal in the administration of law by the IRS. The IRS is the agency specified in the healthcare law to enforce compliance with the requirement to buy health insurance. If the reported behavior of the IRS toward the applications of non-profits is ultimately upheld as lawful, it will continue and expand. That is the nature of government. Just like a gas in a bottle, government expands to fill the power vacuum available to it. The definition of religion contained in the Affordable Care Act is a model which, in the absence of any pressure to do otherwise, will be replicated as the model for administration of the right to free exercise of religion. If the behavior of the IRS in targeting applicants for tax-exempt status is upheld, that sort of behavior will continue and be replicated toward applicants for the conscience exemption in the Affordable Care Act.
Every citizen has both the right and the obligation to participate in the government of the United States. Many citizens believe that because they elect representatives and senators and etcetera, those people represent us and can act on our behalf. They believe they don’t need to be so involved and vigilant, because their elected officials will act on their behalf. The evidence suggesting scandal in the IRS is only one example of evidence that voters cannot afford to relax and let elected officials operate without let or hindrance. Christians have even more motivation than other voters to exercise vigilance and be active in the government. Christians are not a demographic minority, but in government affairs, they are a worldview minority. The worldview of the federal government is increasingly secular, making it quite challenging for Christians to assert the right of free exercise of religion or any other rights deriving from that one.
This post is not written for the purpose of stating a conclusion about the behavior of the IRS so much as it is written for the purpose of alerting voters, especially Christian voters, to questionable, if not deliberately illegal, behavior by employees of the IRS. Public statements suggest that the behavior is authorized and approved at high levels. Every voter should care about the integrity of the administration of the law, but Christians must be very alert to the manner in which this process forewarns all who might wish to claim the conscience exemption of the Affordable Care Act. It could be an alert to problems that may be seen in the future if the conscience exemption of the Affordable Care Act becomes a model for general use with regard to religious liberty. Pray for wisdom. Speak for freedom. Stand up for integrity and for religious liberty.