The Internal Revenue Service has notified the United Church of Christ's national offices in Cleveland, Ohio, that the IRS has opened an investigation into U.S. Sen. Barack Obama's address at the UCC's 2007 General Synod as the church engaging in "political activities."
In the IRS letter dated Feb. 20, the IRS said it was initiating a church tax inquiry "because reasonable belief exists that the United Church of Christ has engaged in political activities that could jeopardize its tax-exempt status."
The Rev. John H. Thomas, the UCC's general minister and president, called the investigation "disturbing" but said the investigation would reveal that the church did nothing improper or illegal.
Obama, an active member of the United Church of Christ for more than 20 years, addressed the UCC's 50th anniversary General Synod in Hartford, Conn., on June 23, 2007, as one of 60 diverse speakers representing the arts, media, academia, science, technology, business and government. Each was asked to reflect on the intersection of their faith and their respective vocations or fields of expertise. The invitation to Obama was extended a year before he became a Democratic presidential candidate.
"The United Church of Christ took great care to ensure that Senator Obama's appearance before the 50th anniversary General Synod met appropriate legal and moral standards," Thomas told United Church News. "We are confident that the IRS investigation will confirm that no laws were violated."
Before Obama spoke to the national gathering of 10,000 UCC members, Associate General Minister Edith A. Guffey, who serves as administrator of the biennial General Synod, admonished the crowd that Obama's appearance was not to be a campaign-related event and that electioneering would not be tolerated. No political leaflets, signs or placards were allowed, and activity by the Obama campaign was barred from inside the Hartford Civic Center venue.
In an introduction before Obama's speech, Thomas said Obama was invited as "one of ours" to provide reflections on "how personal faith can be lived out in the public square, how personal faith and piety is reflected in the life of public service."
Thomas said the IRS's investigation implies that Obama, a UCC member, is not free to speak openly to fellow UCC members about his faith.
"The very fact of an IRS investigation, however, is disturbing," Thomas said. "When the invitation to an elected public official to speak to the national meeting of his own church family is called into question, it has a chilling effect on every religious community that seeks to encourage politicians and church members to thoughtfully relate their personal faith to their public responsibilities."
Don Clark, a Chicago attorney who serves as the UCC's national special counsel, said the IRS investigation will afford the UCC the opportunity to correct "inaccuracies and misperceptions."
"It's disconcerting, since the IRS did not communicate with us, or seek any facts from us, in advance of their coming to this understanding," Clark said. "But we feel confident that once they are made aware of the facts that they'll draw a different conclusion.
"This inquiry will provide an opportunity for the United Church of Christ to correct any factual inaccuracies and misperceptions that may have prompted the underlying concern, and to reaffirm the importance of the constitutional rights of free speech and association that have been implicated," Clark said.
Sitting presidents and presidential candidates have a long history of speaking before non-profit, faith-based bodies.
In January of this year, both Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton spoke separately to the national gathering of the National Baptist Convention of America. In April 1996, when her husband, Bill Clinton, was seeking re-election, then-First Lady Hillary Clinton, who is United Methodist, spoke before her denomination's quadrennial General Conference.
In March 1983, President Ronald Reagan gave his famous "Evil Empire" speech before the National Association of Evangelicals.
In September 1960, then-candidate John F. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, appeared before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association to explain the “so-called religious issue” and “to emphasize from the outset that we have far more critical issues to face in the 1960 election.”
Read the IRS letter to the UCC.
Watch Obama's June 23, 2007, address to General Synod.
Read the text of Obama's speech.
Watch Synod Administrator's instructions on morning of Obama's speech.
A monthly feature about the history of the United Church of Christ
Most of us spend many hours each week watching television or listening to the radio. In 18th-century New England, however, the most important form of public oral communication (even entertainment) was the "sermon."
People read many newspapers and tracts, but they heard hundreds of sermons. The average weekly churchgoer (most people attended, even though only a small number were church members) listened to over 7,000 sermons in a lifetime, amounting to over 15,000 hours of listening.
Unlike sermons in the Church of England, which were supposed to "please and inspire," New England Congregationalists inherited a rational tradition and argued that a good sermon was to "inform and convince." In colonial New England, the words of the preacher carried great influence.
Not only did pastors in each town preach every Sunday, but in keeping with the Calvinist belief that all human activity falls under the jurisdiction of God's Word, sermons were preached at significant public events—anniversaries, thanksgiving days, fast days and election days. Published colonial sermons show that most ministers did not mix religion and politics on Sundays. However, when they were asked to preach an "Election Day sermon," that was different.
In Massachusetts, in the mid-18th century, Election Day was a colony-wide holiday. It began with cannon firing, military exercises, and usually some form of procession of government officials from the seat of government to a nearby church. The most politically and socially important members of community listened carefully for several hours.
Election Day sermons followed a typical pattern. First, they asserted that civil government is founded on an agreement between God and citizens to establish political systems that promote the common good. Scripture states that government is necessary, but no system is perfect. Therefore, voters and rulers were told that they must do what is needed for their "peculiar circumstances."
Second, the people were encouraged to promise to follow those they had elected, and rulers were to promise to act for the good of all. As long as rulers acted "in their proper character," subjects were to obey. On the other hand, if rulers acted contrary to the terms of the agreement, people were "duty bound" to resist.
In all civic actions, voters and rulers were charged to promote virtue, suppress vice and support people of "proven wisdom, integrity, justice, and holiness." As we approach Election Day 2004, Christians might still do well to measure their actions by these criteria. In so doing, however, it is important not to bear false witness against one's neighbor, who might be using the same measure and making a different choice.
The Rev. Barbara Brown Zikmund is editor of The Living Heritage of the United Church of Christ.