Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Huckabee is not worthy

Mike Huckabee should be ashamed of himself but instead he is doubling down.

You no doubt heard his condemnation of the Iran deal as the equivalent of marching Israel to the doors of the oven.   Now, he is certainly entitled to his opinion of the deal.  He is even entitled to some degree of hyperbole as a candidate.  He is not entitled to such thoughtlessness if he really wants to be taken seriously as a candidate to be president of the most powerful nation in the world.  He has put himself in the same category as Donald Trump... a buffoon making inflammatory statements just to get attention.  Worse than that, he has denigrated the title "Christian" as he has shown himself to be a liar, willing to say things he knows are not true to further his own ends.  When called on his comments, he reaffirmed them.

Let's think of the implications of his statement...  He has equated our president with Hitler.  He has condemned the many thoughtful people, including the majority of Israeli citizens, who support this diplomatic attempt to solve complex problems in a difficult part of the world as naively working for the destruction of the people of Israel.  He is instead advocating yet another war (beyond negotiation, there is no other option) that likely cannot be won, condemning many families both in Iran AND in the United States to suffer needlessly while at the same time, allowing Iran to move forward with a nuclear weapons program. At the same time he is ignoring the strong safeties built into the deal simply because they do not fit his political ambitions.

Mike Huckabee has removed himself from any serious consideration as a political candidate and has called into question his right to call himself a follower of Jesus.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Choosing Faith for your child

The other Sunday we had a baby dedication at Cambridge Drive.  The reality is that we don't dedicate babies... we dedicate the adults in their lives to providing a community of caring, nurture, and education so that they may come to their own profession of faith.  That leads me to think about a statement that I hear fairly often, "We don't want to force our children into any faith tradition.  They can make their own decision when they get older." 

To an uncritical thinker, the two paths may sound very similar.  They are not.  let me give a metaphor.

"We believe that playing a musical instrument is very important.  Indeed, all of the studies show that it is one of the very best exercises for the entire brain.  At the same time, we know that playing a musical instrument is a big commitment.  It involves time to practice, money for lessons, money for instruments, and in some ways it even determines the child's friends - if for example they play in the band.  A young child may think she knows what instrument is best but she is too immature to really think that through.  Because it is so important, we'll wait until our son or daughter has graduated from high school so they can make their own decision about playing an instrument and which one."

It is of course, ridiculous.  Anyone who has tried to learn an instrument as an adult knows how much more difficult it is than learning as a child.   We also know how that brain exercise impacts the brains of young children in positive ways.  Finally, learning an instrument is like learning a language and significant bits of that learning are transferable to other languages learned later on.  It is fairly obvious that to wait until the child is old enough to "make their own choice" will simply remove the possibilities from them.  If they learn no instruments as a child, they likely will never learn an instrument.  On the other hand, if they learn an instrument and decide later on to learn a different one, they will already have many of the skills needed to make that transition.

I believe the same thing is true with regards to faith.  Without a foundation in a religious tradition it will be very difficult for a young person to make good choices regarding a path for themselves.  They won't have a language with which to describe religious inclinations and they won't have a vocabulary to enable them to make judgements regarding the value of one tradition or even one faith community over another.  If religious faith has any value, children must be exposed from their youngest days.

And there is that question too... does religious faith have any value?  There are scores of evangelical atheists out there these days telling us that religion is at its foundation a negative force.  They point to he word "faith" and smirk that it requires commitment to something for which there can be no proof.  Then they go on to list the history of religious violence.

There is no argument.  Violence has been and still is perpetrated in the name of religion.  Still, I think it would be difficult or impossible to parse out the parts of that violence that are religious in nature and which are political, economic, or cultural.   Then there have been a few cultures that called themselves atheist.  All of which I'm aware were significantly unenlightened.  

As for being unverifiable... well, I do not agree that all things of value must be verifiable.  I love my wife, my children, and my grandchildren.  Is that verifiable?  Is it quantifiable?  I think not... but it is simply one of the most important commitments in my life.

Are there reasons to believe that a religious commitment, and even more important, a religious community is important?  I think so.  I would argue that while there are clearly instances of religious violence, that most of the positive movements forward in history have had significant if not exclusively religious components. 

All of the blue zone studies have indicated that there is a very positive correlation between longevity and being part of a religious community which gives shape and purpose to life.  That is quantifiable. 
The unquantifiable part is that of my personal experience.  It has been in that larger community of faith that I have found support and challenge that has helped me to be the person I am.  Now, I know that one need not have a religious community to have community, but I see very, very few examples of the kinds of connections and support I see in a good church among my atheist friends.  They may have small connective groups but they tend to be homogenous in every way and they tend to be much more laissez-faire in their connectedness.   The churches in which I've been a part certainly have a degree of homogeneity but they have also had bits that were clearly not.  They have all included folk with different political and cultural backgrounds, ages, economic strata, educational attainments... Were I choosing them as friends, many of them would have lain outside those lines.  Because the church in effect forced me to be a part of their lives, I found myself enriched in ways that under other circumstances never would have happened. 

Finally, religious folk are more generous (again quantifiable) and I would argue that is a very important trait to encourage.  Religious faith requires one to look outside of themselves and to think of the welfare of others.  Again, it is not difficult to find toxic examples, but even then, there is often a hint of a positive side to it. 

So... I would argue that providing a positive foundation for a faith commitment is an important task for a parent and for the larger religious community.  Raise a child within a tradition.  Then, when they are ready they will choose, but they will have a foundation upon which to make a good decision.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Separation of Church and State - Tax Status

I ended my previous post with these words...
A couple of conclusions...
1. religious organizations have special status in the constitution whether we like that or not.
2. that special status leads to a unique relationship between government and religious organizations.
3. while we certainly can change the constitution, there would be consequences for such a move.  To remove the establishment or impediment clause might indeed open the door to an established religion and those who argue for the United States as a "Christian" nation, might just get their way.  At the very least, those who are part of minority traditions (possibly including atheists), could find themselves suffering under official law.
Keep those observations in mind.

In 1819, Chief Justice John Marshall of the supreme court noted, "The power to tax involves the power to destroy."  While the context of the statement was not a church state decision, the import is the same.  To grant any government agency the power to tax religious organizations is in direct contradiction to the 1st Amendment free exercise clause as it gives the government control over religion.  Again, we cannot escape the fact that the constitution gives a unique status to religious organizations that places them outside of the reach of government.  The implications are both important and far-reaching with the most obvious being that churches do not pay taxes.   Depending upon the location, churches often do pay other fees and assessments levied on property.

Some folk think clergy do not pay taxes.  Not true.  Clergy pay income tax and self-employment tax.  Due to some weird legal thing, clergy are seen as employees for income tax purposes and self-employed for payroll tax purposes.   It is true that if a clergy person lives in church owned housing, he or she does not pay income tax on the rental value of that housing.   They do pay self-employment tax though, on the fair rental value.   As I understand it,  other employees who live on property owned by the employer for the benefit of the employer such as building superintendents, college presidents, college resident assistants, military personnel, etc. receive that housing tax free as long as they meet three tests -

  1. The lodging is furnished on the business premises of the employer;
  2. The lodging is furnished for the convenience of the employer, and
  3. The employee is required to accept such lodging as a condition of employment

From what I can see, folk other than clergy do not pay self-employment tax on their housing nor is a payroll tax deducted.  So... at that point (if I'm correct) these other categories of employees actually get a significantly higher tax benefit than do clergy.  Self employment tax is HIGH.

So, it is relatively easy to justify the value of living in a parsonage as exempt from income taxes for a clergyperson as it can easily be seen to meet those three tests.  There is an additional piece, though, that comes into play for clergy sometimes known as a "housing allowance."  I don't know whether a similar benefit exists for anyone else.  I suspect that if it does, the rules are a lot more stringent than for clergy.  Clergy who own their own homes or live in rental properties can receive part of their salary designated as a "housing allowance" equal to the actual cost of housing or the fair rental value, whichever is lower. The housing allowance is not subject to income tax but is subject to self-employment tax just like the fair rental value of a parsonage. The reasoning behind this goes back to the free exercise clause.  This idea is there to equalize the ability of religious organizations which do not own housing for their leaders to exist relative to those that do own that property.  This benefit is challenged in court regularly and so far has been upheld. 

There are other implications of that unique status held by religious organizations that are also important that I may pick up in other posts at some time... I believe that the Johnson Amendment of 1954 (that is when non-profits were prohibited from making political endorsements) cannot apply to churches as that impedes free exercise.  I believe that laws such as zoning etc. also do not apply to churches.   Historically the court has said that the state must show a "compelling interest" to reach over the wall between church and state.  I would argue that the constitution requires that to be a very high bar.  Finally, I like to remind people that churches do not receive tax exempt status because of the benefit they provide to society.  Churches find their unique relationship to the state enshrined in the First Amendment.  They are not like other non-profits.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Separation of Church & State - The Bill of Rights

Two things inspired this post and at least one that will follow it.  First, on July 4, James Dunn died.  James was one of my heroes as the director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.  James was an amazing man who was a tireless advocate for the Baptist idea of soul freedom as it related to religious liberty for all people.  You can read a short bio of James here.   He was an amazing man and I was blessed to spend the little snippets of time that I spent with him over the years.

The second piece is a recurring theme that I see on Facebook calling for churches to pay taxes.  More about this in a later post...

So, first I'd like to speak a little about the bill of rights and the ways that document impacts religious organizations. 

Often we hear of the freedom of the press as being "The first freedom."  The reality is that freedom of the press is actually the third freedom mentioned in the bill of rights following freedom of speech, and first, freedom of religion.  That's correct.  The very first freedom mentioned in the Bill of Rights is freedom of religion. 

Let me make very clear one critical observation about the Bill of Rights... it's purpose is to limit the power of government.  It defines where the government cannot tread.  It says that government may not establish religion nor impede religion.  It does not limit religious actions in any way, including involvement in political activity.  Indeed, to the degree that political activity is dictated by religious commitments, it implies that the government does not have the ability to interfere.

One other quick observation... folk often conflate other non-profit organizations with religious bodies and indeed, the laws that are often used to restrict or support non-profits are often applied to religious organizations.  It is important to note that other non-profit type organizations are not mentioned in the Bill of Rights.  Religious organizations have a special status in the Bill of Rights that other organizations, regardless of how important they might be to the function of society, do not have.  Common wisdom says that non-profits receive their status because of the good they do in society with the implication that whenever that good recedes, their status disappears.  There is no such expectation placed on religious organizations in the Bill of Rights.  Religion does not have to contribute anything to the broader society to receive its status. 

Finally, it should be realized that the concept of separation of church and state came primarily from religious groups, mainly the Baptists, Quakers, and Unitarians.  These groups championed "soul freedom," the idea that an individuals relationship with God is between that person and God and the state has no role in defining it, supporting it, or impeding it.  Thus Thomas Jefferson's famous phrase, "wall of separation," was written in a letter he sent to the Danbury Baptist Association who had written him to encourage him to enshrine separation of church and state in the Bill of Rights.  Jefferson wrote back to assure the he would include a wall of separation.  The texts of the correspondence can be found here.

A couple of conclusions...
1. religious organizations have special status in the constitution whether we like that or not.
2. that special status leads to a unique relationship between government and religious organizations.
3. while we certainly can change the constitution, there would be consequences for such a move.  To remove the establishment or impediment clause might indeed open the door to an established religion and those who argue for the United States as a "Christian" nation, might just get their way.  At the very least, those who are part of minority traditions (possibly including atheists), could find themselves suffering under official law.

In the next post, I'll talk about taxes and churches...

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Marriage Equality and the non-consenting

Since the SCOTUS ruling there have been a bunch of reactions from conservative religious folk.  I have no problem with someone believing whatever they want and I fully expect that when someone has a deeply held faith commitment, they will act accordingly.  If they do not, then they are simply hypocrites. 

So here are the two problem areas... First, I hear folk, especially very conservative Christians, claiming that the government will force them to marry gay couples or they will somehow be punished.  My first question would be when has the government ever forced you to marry anyone?  If a couple comes to me as a clergy person, I decide whether or not to perform the service. If not, it may be because I do not agree the couple is ready for marriage or any other reason that I decide.  If the congregation I serve has criteria to which I've agreed, then those criteria help shape the decision.  If I served a congregation that refused to perform services for divorced persons and a couple came with one of them being divorced, the service would not be performed.

This simply is not a concern and there is no reason to believe it ever will be.  Add the question of what gay couple would want their service to be performed by someone who believes their relationship is an abomination and I really cannot imagine it ever becoming a problem.

The second is a bit trickier.  We've seen already that in some states, clerks are being advised that they do not have to provide marriage licenses to gay couples.  This is problematic in a number of ways.  First I would ask whether those same clerks are allowed to refuse a license to a couple with a divorced person?  Or a mixed race couple?  Or a couple of mixed religions... or no religion for that matter (if indeed, marriage is an institution established by God)?  All these situations trigger religious objections by some.

Then there is the question raised by the recent meme... if giving a marriage license means that you've participated in the gay marriage, does selling a gun mean that you've participated in a murder committed with that gun?  Does giving a couple a license imply anything other than that the state allows this relationship and that the employee is acting as an agent of the state (his or her job). 

Years ago I had a discussion with someone who worked for a defense company and had been condemned by some for working at a plant that produced munitions, implying that they were responsible for how those munitions were being used.  His answer was, "I didn't send the troops there.  I didn't authorize the expenditures.  You elected that government and you paid for those munitions.  Maybe you're the one who is responsible."  The argument made sense.  I think this is a similar situation.  If an individual clerk cannot fulfill his or her job, they should find a new job.  In doing that job - providing a marriage license - they are not participating in the acts that follow.

On the other hand, what about a JP or Judge who performs weddings as a part of their job?  That person is participating in the ritual in a more significant way and religious objections may have a real part here.  At the same time, the local government is required by law to provide that service.  I would argue that in those circumstances a religious exemption might make sense but that the government agency is obligated to provide someone who will perform the ceremony.  John Smith may indeed say, "I cannot do this service for religious reasons, but my colleague, Mary Jones will.  Let me get her."  Or indeed, while talking to the couple, the clerk need not even mention John Smith.  The clerk can just make the appointment with Mary Jones.  Under no circumstances can the county office say, "Sorry, we don't have anyone to do your service."  They are responsible to provide that service to all who are legally entitled to it