Religion is meaningful, powerful and has a voice

Mass every Sunday, plus a dollar for the collection basket. Tuna fish casserole with Spaghettios for dinner every Friday. Confessing my sins once every fourth Saturday. Forty days every spring, giving up for Lent Chunky candy bars and Frito's cor...

Mass every Sunday, plus a dollar for the collection basket. Tuna fish casserole with Spaghettios for dinner every Friday. Confessing my sins once every fourth Saturday. Forty days every spring, giving up for Lent Chunky candy bars and Frito's corn chips.

Such were my duties as a Catholic raised in the 1960s. They also comprised my reasons for eventual disenchantment with the church, for they were the sum total of influences from my faith that had a bearing on real life.

Because when I needed something more, upon entering adulthood during the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War, the church let me down. When I needed enlightenment, support, or some kind of direction from our parish pulpit, I did not even get acknowledgment of those controversies.

That's because archdiocesan leaders were loath to alienate any members, or to risk losing the financial support of parishioners who stubbornly defended segregation, or who thought they had a stake in the continuation of the war. So the priests stuck to vague Biblical bromides about doing good, avoiding evil, and rendering to Caesar (paying taxes) -- with an equitable share, of course, going to the Lord.

And that is why I was so happily edified by news that ministers of the All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, Calif., announced they will continue preaching on current social problems like war and torture and race relations. That, despite a formal federal inquiry of the practice.


The Internal Revenue Service launched an investigation of the tax-exempt status of All Saints after a guest minister, the Rev. Dr. George Regas, criticized the Bush administration's "pre-emptive war" (and its insufficient effort to relieve poverty) shortly before the last presidential election. But after the IRS issued a summons for all of the church's documents from presidential election year 2004 -- including sermons and publications which contained political references -- the church leadership refused to cooperate to purposely precipitate a test case of its freedoms of speech and religion.

In refusing the IRS's demand, an All Saints' pastor, the Rev. Ed Bacon, said that the Episcopal faith, "calls us to speak to the issues of war and poverty, bigotry, torture, and all forms of terrorism ... always stopping short of supporting or opposing political parties or candidates for public office."

Amen and hallelujah, reverend!

It was enough to make me want convert from agnosticism to Episcopalian. Here is a church, its ministers, and its supportive congregation, asserting that faith matters, and that religion is meaningful when it spells out a set of beliefs and values to be applied in man's behavior toward his fellow man.

As a child, I was puzzled that the lessons we learned in religion classes seemed not to be applied in the grownup world of business and politics and human relations. So I grew up thinking that churches were not intended to be institutions of inspiration and guidance, but were, instead, personal and exclusive societies, like the Elks or the Eagles, somehow unifying a particular group, but possessed of no moral relevance for the world at large.

And then along comes All Saints, and one in particular, Ed Bacon, to renew my faith and hope.

Lest I get tangled in theology, let me return to the legal matter at hand. A church has the right, and what Rev. Bacon proclaims as a duty, to speak out on moral issues, such as war, poverty, race relations, abortion, immigration, torture, and so on. It should retain its freedom and tax-exempt status as long as it does not actively campaign for any political party or candidate.

If a sermon against war, for example, is interpreted by the IRS as political campaigning, because one party currently favors war and the other doesn't, it is an absurdly boundless application of constitutional law. It would mean that preaching against abortion, for example, which many churches do, is a violation, since opposition to abortion is a Republican party plank; or proselytizing against the sin of gambling would be a violation, if, in that particular state, one political party happens to be in favor of legalizing the lottery that year.


It's likely that if the conflict between the IRS and All Saints Episcopal Church makes it to court, a fair judge will see the IRS action as intimidation and a threat to our precious freedoms.

And maybe the judge also will see that it's the IRS, and not the church, that may be playing politics.

DAVID McGRATH of Hayward is professor emeritus at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Ill., and is the editor of "The Thing About Hope Is...," an anthology of literature.

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