Definition of a church

The Johnson Amendment — which does little more than prevent churches from explicitly endorsing or condemning political candidates — has been in the crosshairs (no pun intended but now that I’ve said it, I think it’s appropriate) of some misguided politicians for a while now because they feel it’s an unfair restriction on freedom of speech.

I think it doesn’t go far enough. There was an analysis of available records a few years ago that effectively confirmed George Carlin’s joke about how the Catholic Church alone could wipe out the federal budget deficit if all you did was tax them on their real estate holdings. It’s not surprising, then, that there’s a movement afoot to tax churches.

Couple this with arguments that churchgoers are more charitable than non-churchgoers, which generally fall apart when you factor out donations to the church itself, and how the lack of transparency on how an entity that calls itself a “church” actually spends its money raises some questions about what church donations actually spend their money on.

But there is a truth that many churches do operate legitimate charities, especially when it comes to helping the homeless, the infirm, or the hungry. (And not all of them consider women to be second class citizens whose only purpose is to bear children…)

So I’m thinking there needs to be a provision in the tax law that more explicitly defines what a church is, and any entity that fails to meet this definition simply isn’t a church.

Here’s my first thought on it. We can refine it as necessary but I think this is a good start. A church can only be defined as any entity that is affiliated with a religious organization with more than some number (is 100 a good number?) of adherents. Furthermore, it must spend at least some percentage (50?) of its total income on community services. Community services can be defined as expenses unrelated to any of the following:

  • Staff salaries
  • Construction, maintenance, or upkeep of facilities, including mortgages or rents on said facilities
  • Utilities required to keep facilities operational. This includes, but is not limited to, electricity, plumbing/sewer, telecommunications, and internet connectivity
  • Attempts to recruit additional members

When you look at the palace-like buildings owned and maintained by, say, the Mormons, it’s not unfair to question what they actually spend their money on, especially in comparison to secular charities like, say, Habitat for Humanity.

This would have the double affect of getting more transparency in church income and expenses, while also boosting the government’s coffers without raising taxes on the average taxpayer.

Then we can start debating the proper numbers to be filled in to my suggestions above.

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We’ve seen this before…

Yesterday, all of the political news media were abuzz with the information posted by The Guardian about a book coming out next week by Michael Wolff, in which the long-anticipated war between Steve Bannon and Donald Trump — which we’d been expecting since the former left the White House to return to Breitbart — finally exploded into open hostility.

I have no real allegiance to either side so I’ll just sit back and watch how things play out, hoping that neither side does too much damage to the country at large. That said, I wouldn’t be a good student of history if I didn’t point out that there have been other individual allegiances between political players that fell apart after their eventual victory. And if history is any guide, things don’t look good for Bannon.

The first that bears mentioning, is Thomas Paine, without whom George Washington would never have had the popular support for his insurrection against the British crown. When Paine was imprisoned in France in 1793, Washington chose not to intervene on his behalf. The rift between them only widened from there and by the time Paine died, he was a pauper and an outcast. While his memory has been revived somewhat in the past 200 years, Washington clearly emerged on top.

Next is Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky and his complicated relationship with Vladimir Lenin. Like Paine, Trotsky was valuable in helping gain popular support for Lenin’s revolution, although by the time Lenin died, Trotsky knew he’d be safer in exile. Trotsky made too many enemies in Lenin’s inner circle, most notably Josef Stalin’s who would ultimately emerge on top. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Trotsky’s death was a political hit.

Finally, we have Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, two revolutionaries who truly needed each other in their quest to achieve their goals. When Castro got into power, he basically ignored Guevara, who was ultimately assassinated by Bolivian revolutionaries. Castro undoubtedly could have helped.

There’s a fourth that I considered putting in this list. I ultimately decided to mention it here but it’s not quite the same as the other three: Charles Guiteau, who believed himself to be responsible for the election of the 20th president of the United States, James Garfield. When he didn’t get the political position he had applied for, he assassinated the president. He was quickly found guilty and executed for his crime.

It bears mentioning that of the pairings mentioned above, only Castro outlived his one-time ally. Living longer, though, doesn’t mean much in the lens of history. Based upon age alone, I would expect Bannon to live longer than Trump. Washington, Lenin, and Castro all got what they wanted. Paine, Trotsky, and Guevara? Not so much.

Opening the flood-gates

I was born in March of 1972. If you’re a student of American history, then you should know that the first major historical event of my lifetime occurred about three months later, although at the time, hardly anyone would have known or predicted that a “botched, third rate burglary attempt” would have been so consequential.

The location of the break-in has become shorthand for the political scandal that rocked the US government to its core: Watergate. A little more than two years after the initial event, amid talk of impeachment and an almost certain conviction by the US Senate, president Richard Nixon became the first (and to date, the only) president to resign from office.

There are a few points that bear mentioning here. The actual break-in not only failed to gain any usable information on Nixon’s general election opponent, George McGovern, but it was completely unnecessary. Nixon was popular enough within the electorate, that he didn’t need to resort to dirty tricks to secure re-election. I doubt that his lopsided victory would have been much different had the break-in not been attempted.

But Nixon’s crimes and his corruption were far greater than the break-in. There is an old adage about how, if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog. It’s a political town and everyone is looking out for him- or herself. And if that means taking down people who are powerful, so be it.

One of the key figures who helped to bring Nixon down, was known for more than thirty years under the alias of “Deep Throat” (an homage to a then-popular porno movie) and was only revealed to be Deputy FBI director Mark Felt after his death. He fed information to the Washington Post reporters who did their research and found all of the information that would eventually lead to the resignations not only of Vice President Spiro Agnew but also of Nixon himself.

There is a new movie out about Mark Felt, and I am curious to see it, especially after Movieguide penned an opinion piece that makes Nixon look like the victim of overzealous prosecutors, and how Mark Felt’s personal agenda made him conduct his personal witch hunt. See above about getting a dog. There’s no evidence that his party affiliation made him any more or less dutiful an FBI agent.

The Movieguide article alleges — without even a citation much less evidence — that John Dean ordered The Watergate break-in to cover up his wife’s affiliation with a prostitution ring. If this is true, I couldn’t find a single credible source on this point. Perhaps that’s why they said it once and never returned to this point later in the article, without so much as an attempt to connect the dots from his wife to the break-in. This sounds like, at best, an attempt at deflection from the reality.

Towards the end of the Movieguide article, they make reference to a book by one-time White House staffer Geoff Shepard that I readily concede I haven’t read. All reviews of this book, are on conservative websites that have an interest in furthering their hypothesis that Nixon was an innocent victim. And it may be one of the few published works that offers an alternative view to an extremely complicated moment in American history. I’m not saying that this book likely plays fast and loose with the facts, but Mr Shepard is hardly an unbiased observer here, since his own ambitions were scuttled by the way the scandal played out.

In my lifetime, I have seen a total of nine different presidents. Six republicans and three democrats. I think it’s interesting that the six republicans, in chronological order as they served, also go, in my opinion, from best to worst. I consider Nixon to be the best Republican President in my lifetime (starting the EPA, entente with the Russians and the Chinese, and laying the groundwork for getting out of Vietnam are all positives about his greater legacy…) He was better than Ford, who was light years ahead of Reagan, who was better than Bush, Sr., who was better than his son. And I didn’t think anyone could be worse than Bush, Jr, until Trump came to Washington.

Donald Trump is facing scandals that dwarf the scope of Watergate, and he doesn’t have a dog. He’s damaging the United States domestically and abroad. If he’s doing anything, he’s padding his bank account and those bank accounts of his children. He has made the country and the world a considerably more unsafe place many times over. It’s only a matter of time before he is relieved of his duties, either through impeachment or coup involving the 25th amendment.

I just wonder what kinds of movies and books will be made about this era forty years from now…

A good thing about the Trump presidency

In the movie JFK, Kevin Costner plays Jim Garrison, the real-life lawyer who brought the only criminal case to trial in the assassination of our 35th president (and namesake of the movie).  While the movie’s faults are legion (not the least of which is the credibility it lent to some of the more absurd conspiracy theories about the assassination), there’s an interesting — and valid — point made when Costner gives his closing argument in the trial: the moment you have two or more people involved in something, that is by definition a conspiracy.  

When you look around in today’s media-saturated world, conspiracy theories abound.  By the expansive definition of “conspiracy” used in the movie, conspiracies absolutely do exist.  I’m not trying to make an argument that the official version of any event is necessarily the whole truth, and I readily concede that there are times when skepticism of the official version (or at least portions of the official version) of events is absolutely warranted.  

Modern conspiracy theories generally involve arguing that some group of powerful, wealthy, connected people with a vested interest in covering up the “truth” put out an official story that we shouldn’t believe.   The motivations of the conspirators — depending upon the event — range from maintaining the status quo or upending some rule they don’t like.  The conspiracy theorists argue that mass shootings, for example, are really just false flags planted to get people motivated enough to allow the government to take away guns from law abiding citizens while the anti-vaccination movement maintains that they’re being silenced because too many people (pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies, doctors and nurses) make too much money off of the vaccines to look at the supposedly harmful side effects truthfully.  

I’ll grant you that the proponents of the conspiracy theories about mass shootings and vaccinations are quite harmful.  There are no shortage of stories from either survivors or grieving families of the deceased who have found themselves being harassed and threatened by people who believe that their trauma is just an act.   The health risks of vaccines are minimal compared to the overall health benefits of those same vaccines.  (And I’m saying that knowing that I can’t rule out the possibility that my father might be alive today had he not gotten a particular vaccine about 2.5 years before he died.  But that’s the stuff of another entry.  

I’ll even concede that some conspiracy theories can be tempting.  When George W Bush ascended to the presidency in 2001, he definitely wanted to help rehabilitate his father’s legacy as presidency and taking out Saddam Hussein was definitely a part of that agenda.  The September 11 attacks provided more than enough popular support for that goal.   (And, when you consider that there were nineteen hijackers, that definitely meets the definition of “conspiracy” from the Oliver Stone movie.)  That doesn’t mean Bush (or any other member of the US government at any level) was in on it.  

One fatal flaw of modern conspiracy theories, is the size and scope of the hypothesized conspiracy itself.   As more people are “in the know” about the truth, the harder it becomes to conceal it.   There is, for example, an entire industry dedicated to revealing rumors about the next big product releases from Apple despite the company’s best efforts to keep their product plans quiet.  And Apple’s stock price is at least partially dependent upon those rumors.  

Which brings me to the train wreck that is the White House under Donald Trump.  I think there are fewer leaks in the lean-tos built by the contestants on the TV show Survivor than there are in this administration.   And Trump isn’t exactly wrong for not appreciating the fact that the press is getting information not necessarily intended for public consumption.  There’s even a recent story in The Onion that’s poking fun at the leaks.  

The issues Trump is facing in maintaining an efficient, smoothly working operation are identical to any issues that a sufficiently wide-ranging conspiracy would have to deal with.   Keeping people silent, especially when they don’t have some massive motivation to be quiet, is quite difficult if not impossible.   

I’m not seeing much coming out of the White House that I can honestly say is a good thing.  But the more I think about it, maybe the leaks should help us put to rest the notion that these conspiracy theories are anything other than an occasionally amusing distraction

The Johnson Amendment

Since 1954, it has officially been a law on the books that states that a church or nonprofit organization risks losing its tax exempt status if they openly campaign for or against particular political candidates.   This is one of the few laws that push back against what was the slow creep of religion into public policies in the 1950s.  After all, this was the time of the rise of Billy Graham, creating a national motto of “in god we trust“, and adding the phrase “under god” into the pledge of allegiance (one of my first entries on this blogging site talks about that point).  

The Johnson Amendment, so named because it was proposed and written by then-Senator Lyndon Johnson, has been the bane of religious conservatives ever since.  They argue that having this law on the books somehow infringes on the freedom of speech of their pastors and have, for years, promoted what they call Pulpit Freedom Sunday in open defiance of the law.  

Their arguments are ridiculous on their surface.  Freedom of speech does not equate to the freedom to have a platform to speak as you wish and your desired audience is under no obligation to listen or take you seriously.  The Johnson Amendment is one of the few checks on the undeserved power already wielded by some churches on their gullible parishioners.   

And it’s quite toothless if you think about it.  A minister can’t stand in front of his church and make a sermon that says that “candidate A is against abortion while candidate B is for it, so you’re going to hell if you vote for candidate B.”  They can (and often do) make sermons talking about how evil abortion is and how god would send you straight to hell if you even think about taking the life of an innocent unborn baby…

I sometimes wonder how they reconcile this position against both Leviticus 27:6 and Numbers 3:15-16, both of which argue that someone isn’t even human until a month after they’re born.   I’ve got to admit that I’d love to see a candidate for political office use one or both of those bible verses when asked the question of “when does life begin?”

The Republican Party has long been allied with forces that seek to weaken, if not eliminate, the constitutional separation of church and state.  The constitution grants people the right to worship as they please.   They twist this right into claiming they have the freedom to impose their religious beliefs on others and then claim persecution when people push back.  

A few years ago in the Supreme Court’s decision in Hobby Lobby vs Burwell, this argument went beyond the ridiculous when the court, expanding on a prior decision regarding corporate personhood, said that corporations can actually have their own religious beliefs and that those beliefs can be completely devoid of any factual basis or evidence because they had a “deeply held belief” that contraceptives are abortofascents and therefore shouldn’t be covered by employer insurance.   

The rational response to the Hobby Lobby ruling ought to be the repeal of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and negotiating a constitutional amendment that specifies the limits of corporate personhood.  (As taxpayers, corporations should be treated like people. In other arenas of life, such as actually having a birth and a death, they shouldn’t…)

But the less-than-rational modern incarnation of the GOP is eager to eliminate the Johnson Amendment now that they have control over both the legislative and executive branches of government.   While I think this is a bad idea — the amendment needs strengthening, not eliminating — part of me wants to encourage it.  

A repeal would free up the liberal churches too, from the same restraints.  Imagine if Martin Luther King had done overt politicking from his pulpit?  Or Jesse Jackson?  For every baptist or Pentecostal church preaching about fire and brimstone for voting the wrong way, imagine an AME, Methodist, or UCC church preaching about love and voting the right way.

Imagine an imam or a rabbi sermonizing about how to improve the American political process by breaking the stranglehold Christianity has on contemporary discourse.  

And it gets even more interesting than that.  Remember that the Johnson amendment applies to all non-profits, not just churches.  What would happen if the Freedom From Religion Foundation or Planned Parenthood or any of the scores of scientific educational foundations started doing this?   I think the only conservative non-church nonprofit that could come close to this level of clout, would be the NRA.

So it’s a double-edged sword.  I most definitely do not want to see the Johnson Amendment repealed unless it’s replaced with something with more teeth.   But if it is, I look forward to creating a “be careful what you wish for” mentality in the evangelicals who so vehemently want to see it go away entirely.  

The non-linear nature of history

The name Charles Guiteau is probably not the best known name in American history.  Over at Wikipedia, there’s one category that his entry belongs to, which contains exactly three other names, including Leon Czolgosz (another not exactly well known name to people who aren’t students of American history).   

But Guiteau ought to be more than just a footnote to history.   He was definitely delusional and probably a textbook example of a psychopath.   In 1880, he gave an impassioned speech at the republican national convention in favor of the man who would go on to win the general election, James Garfield.   

And he felt that Garfield won because of that speech.  As a result of more than a half century of patronage, first introduced by Andrew Jackson in the election of 1828, Guiteau felt he was entitled to a position within the cabinet of President Garfield.   When he didn’t get the ambassadorship he wanted, he decided to assassinate the president.   

I often use the case of Charles Guiteau as an example of how you can never tell when some decisions might have horrible, unforeseen consequences.   In hindsight, we can probably argue that there’s a degree of luck that Garfield was the only victim of a disappointed office seeker during the era of the “spoils system”.

There are countless other examples.  I’m torn about whether whether the blame for the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 belongs more on decisions made by Harry Truman or Ronald Reagan.  Probably a little bit of both.   It was on Truman’s watch that we had our failed incursion into Korea under the notion of the “domino theory” that if one country became communist, then other countries would fall.   This, in turn, was Reagan’s justification for funding the mujaheddin in Afghanistan to fight against the Soviets in the 1980s.   And who got a lot of American money for that war?   Osama bin Laden.   Without that money, he wouldn’t have had the resources or the knowledge to train his followers…

Some decisions have consequences that don’t make themselves known for a long time, without regard to whether we might agonize over them for a long time or whether they seemed like no-brainers at the time.  Bill Clinton’s impeachment was only made possible after the Supreme Court rejected his argument that a civil lawsuit would detract from his ability to perform the duties of the president.   The court ruled (correctly) that there was no historical precedent for a civil lawsuit having the net result of harm to the presidency.   Well, that precedent surely is there now…..

You can draw an almost direct line from both Presidents Bush to the recent Russian incursion into Ukraine.   Bush 41 set the stage by not intervening when Saddam Hussein, his country harmed by a nearly decade long war with neighboring Iran, asked for help when Kuwait made oil sales even harder.   So Hussein invaded Kuwait and Bush intervened to drive the Iraqi army back.  Then Bush 43, hoping to salvage his father’s legacy, waged an ill-advised war to depose Hussein after he had gained some political capital in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.  Vladimir Putin, watching this aspect of history can make a valid argument that if Bush could do that, why can’t he do pretty much the same thing in Ukraine, where a fair amount of the local population might prefer to be subjects of Moscow rather than Kyiv….

It’s too soon to know what the consequences of some of the tumult of 2016 will be.   Between Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump, there’s a lot of uncertainty about what will happen next, much less the longer term impacts.   Time will certainly tell on that one, but whatever it is, that’ll only mean that future leaders will have to deal with it when it does finally happen.   

Whither the GOP and the country?

In the past couple of months I’ve been thinking a lot about both American history and what portends for the next four years under a President Donald Trump.   I have often said that I have not been able, in good conscience, to pull any levers in the voting booth for someone with “Republican” next to their name since I watched then-Senator Arlen Specter hew dangerously rightward to fend off a primary challenge from then-Representative Pat Toomey in 2004.   

At the time,  my other senator was Rick Santorum.  When Toomey — whose worldview closely resembles that of Santorum — came in claiming the mantle of the future of the Republican Party, I lost the ability to vote for the GOP.  

I was (and still am) quick to point out to pollsters, this statement is not, in and of itself, a giveaway to the Democratic Party.   

Donald Trump ran on an openly racist, sexist, bigoted platform sprinkled with some economic populism that appealed to those who have felt left behind by a changing economy.   The racism, sexism, bigotry, and general xenophobia he spouted aren’t anything new in either this country or humanity in general.   It’s just disheartening how much he has emboldened them.  

In looking at the posturings of the president elect, I wonder if I have been misjudging things.   Thirteen years ago, I thought the downfall of the Republican Party would be the influence of the religious right, and that in order for the party to become remotely palatable to me, they’d have to rid themselves of the influence of the theocrats in their midst.  

Say what you will about Donald Trump himself, but he is not a theocrat.   He may have surrounded himself with the likes of Franklin Graham and other modern religious hypocrites but he himself has little use for the teachings and trappings of religion.   I might tongue-in-cheek question why someone like Trump hasn’t founded his own church as he seems quite comfortable preaching similar bullshit to gullible supporters, but I’m sure that, as a con man he recognizes similar people.  

I am not, by nature, a pessimistic person.  And I do recognize that sometimes, in order to move forward we must occasionally step back.  Looking at Trump’s nominees for important positions in his cabinet, there are only a handful of people who can competently execute the duties of the position without raising the specter of corruption, conflict of interest, or historical opposition to the goals and expectations of the agency they would lead.  Add in Trump’s very public disregard for our intelligence agencies, and it’s easy to see how our enemies can be emboldened to find ways to attack us while the wolves guard the proverbial hen house.  

Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell has shown his true colors in wanting to rush the most controversial nominees through the confirmation process without thoroughly vetting them.  (Note that there is nothing wrong with holding the hearings before the president elect assumes the office; it’s the lack of interest in compiling the necessary documentation on their backgrounds that is a problem.)  Considering the sheer amount of wealth all of these nominees have, both individually and collectively, their backgrounds should be investigated more thoroughly, not less.  

I have pointed out before that, depending on how you measure it, three historical presidencies vie for the title of “most corrupt.”  The way Trump is starting out, it seems as though he wants to surpass Grant, Harding, and Reagan and earn the mantle of most corrupt on his own, eliminating any ambiguity from the various possible definitions.  

And yes, that can and will damage the country in scores of ways, both direct (bankrupting the government) and indirect (leaving vulnerabilities in our defenses and infrastructure).   And that, in turn, could be the motivation of an otherwise reluctant congress to grant more powers to a president who is already excessively power hungry.  

During the campaign I was unable to answer the simple question of why Donald Trump wanted to be president.   Most people who enter politics — liberal and conservative alike — do so because they feel compelled to serve the public and think that they can effect positive changes for the country.   There is nothing in Donald Trump’s public statements or his past history that indicates that he wants to serve anyone other than himself.  

But there is cause for hope.  Whatever damage he does, can be easily undone by an electorate that watches in disgust, starting with a new congress designed to hold him accountable for his lies and actions in two years and then a new president in four.  

What I’d like to see in this process is the Republican Party waking up and realizing how much of a mistake they made by having him as their standard bearer.  The country will survive.  Will the republicans?