PERHAPS if the sermon had a more "praise the Lord and pass the ammunition" bent, the political police might have given it a pass. But the lecture from the pulpit at one of the largest and most liberal churches in Southern California had a decidedly antiwar ring to it when it was delivered two days before the 2004 presidential election.
So All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena got pulled over for apparently going too far over the limit in a political zone. Is it a coincidence that the same government targeting an anti-war church for an investigation of its tax-exempt status is led by a wartime president? Hardly.
Recently Rector J. Edwin Bacon of All Saints informed the 3,500-member congregation that a guest sermon by a former rector, the Rev. George Regas, on Oct. 31, 2004, had prompted a letter from the Internal Revenue Service. The IRS warned that "a reasonable belief exists that you may not be a tax-exempt church "
Tax-exempt organizations, including churches, are prohibited by the federal tax code from intervening in political campaigns and elections. The government's letter said "our concerns are based on a Nov. 1, 2004, newspaper article in the Los Angeles Times, and a sermon presented at the All Saints Church discussed in the article."
That address by the Reverend Regas, a long time opponent of both the Vietnam War and the first Gulf War, imagined Jesus participating in a political debate with then-presidential candidates John Kerry and George Bush.
While he never urged parishioners to vote for either man, the rector did say he believed Jesus would be against the war and might say to both, "I will tell you what I think of your war: The sin at the heart of this war against Iraq is your belief that an American life is of more value than an Iraqi life. That an American child is more precious than an Iraqi baby. God loathes war."
The cleric also had Jesus confronting the candidates over their lack of attention to the poor. In his own voice the exasperated church leader declared, "The religious right has drowned out everyone else. Now the faith of Jesus has come to be known as pro-rich, pro-war, and pro-American "
He advised the congregation to "take with you all that you know about Jesus, the peacemaker. Take all that Jesus means to you. Then vote your deepest values."
Marcus Owens, the church's tax attorney and a former head of the IRS tax-exempt section, called it "ludicrous to suggest that a pastor cannot preach about the value of promoting peace simply because the nation happens to be at war during an election season."
It also seems politically suspicious considering the church's liberal reputation and long record of political activism. Does that now mean every fundamentally conservative church railing against the immoral liberal left should likewise be signaled out for formal IRS examination?
Should Pat Robertson be worried?