Prayer as Politics

May 20, 2013

Over the past week, there has been a lot of attention to the news that the IRS targeted Tea Party and other conservative groups by delaying their tax-exempt status applications and demanding answers to extra questions. It is a serious scandal that has rocked Washington, D.C. and threatens to overshadow the legislative priorities of President Barack Obama's second term. And while Republican leaders are right that the IRS scandal is a big problem, it remains hard to trust them on issue when they have cried "wolf" on so many fake Obama "scandals." The ideological double-standard in treatment is problematic, but the real problem is not the IRS being hard on conservatives but the IRS not also being hard on liberals. Many tax-exempt groups engage in partisan politics and the IRS rarely punishes groups for not following the rules. Conservative religious groups like churches and parachurch organizations are especially given freedom to break IRS rules without punishment; perhaps IRS leaders fear being accused of being anti-Christian. The most provocative of the questions posed to a conservative group was one that Representative Aaron Schock, a Republican from Illinois, alluded to last week in a U.S. House hearing on the IRS abuses. Schock asked the IRS's former Acting Commissioner:

Their question, specifically asked from the IRS to the Coalition for Life of Iowa: Please detail the content of the members of your organization's prayers. Would that be an inappropriate question to a 501(c)(3) applicant? The content of one's prayers?
Schock misrepresented the question, but is correct that there was a prayer-related inquiry. The IRS question actually asked this:
Please explain how all of your activities, including the prayer meetings held outside of Planned Parenthood are considered educational as defined under 501(c)(3). Organizations exempt under 501(c)(3) may present opinions with scientific or medical facts. Please explain in detail the activities at these prayer meetings. Also, please provide the percentage of time your organization spends on prayer groups as compared with the other activities of the organization.
So the question is not about the content of the prayers, but rather about the nature and purpose of the prayer meetings. Many have blasted the IRS for asking the prayer question, especially since 501(c)(3) groups are allowed to engage in religious activity. Yet, there is actually an interesting and good implication raised by the question (which is not to say the IRS was right to press the group on the issue, especially when they do not challenge many other politically-active tax-exempt groups). What the question suggests is that the prayer meetings are not merely religious, but also political advocacy. Prayer, especially public prayer, is not merely a spiritual act. Prayer, especially public prayer, carries with it inherent societal implications that may be political. Praying outside Planned Parenthood (or a governmental building or the office of a public policy group) inherently carries political undertones (and perhaps even an explicit partisan tone). Perhaps we need to think more carefully about public prayer meetings.