Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Jesus Drives an SUV: A One-Year Retrospective, plus Dollar and his Dollars

The Church of the Orange Sky is happy to endorse this entry by one of the true authors of the third-best religious blog in Canada.

About a year ago the righteous authors of this blog, inspired by their ordination into one of the world's largest churches (at least if you count based on the number of ordained ministers), posed the question: What would Jesus drive? Our innovative answers came from an important interdisciplinary perspective backed by years of experience at the cutting edge of revolutionary politics and academic research.

A year later, this blog has earned massive international attention. We routinely get visitors from as far away as Europe, South America, and Japan. I used to be able to keep track of this when I had a stat counter on this blog, but then I modified the template and the stat counter vanished. Fortunately for you, the reader, that means we're no longer collecting personal information about you and your computer without covering our butts with a vague privacy policy.

Even better, last year we rocketed to the top of the famous Canadian Blog Awards, which sadly do not appear to have come round for another go this fall. In the end the fair and entirely incorruptible awards process voted us the third-best religious blog in Canada.

More importantly, though, we have answered the question posed by the marketing campaign which inspired the creation of this site, and according to Google, we've done it better than anybody else. The only person who outranks us on the subject of "Jesus drives", it turns out, is Leonard Sweet, who's flogging a book on how Jesus drives him crazy, which I suspect isn't actually true. (Dr. Sweet is cordially invited to consider contributing a free PDF of his book to the great electronic library proposed in a recent column from the Church of the Orange Sky). In the spirit of fairness, I should note another site, actually called What Would Jesus Drive?, which adopts a more literal approach to answering the question.

This blog has also contributed to the downfall of important individuals. For example, shortly after the Church of the Orange Sky denounced the ruling dynasty of Oral Roberts University for their flippant abuse of supporters' holy money, God took the almost-unprecedented step of reversing his own decree on the subject and calling away president Richard Roberts for an indefinite leave.

So, reader, you've probably observed by now that the authors of this blog are neither as prolific nor as consistent in their postings as you might like. But this is an important blog with global influence, and your loyal support has made it that way, so thank you for your support over the past year and please come back in the future for more long-winded monologues on important subjects relevant to everyone's lives.

Unfortunately, in the meantime, it seems that this blog's celestial calling - to smite the evil amongst us - remains just as relevant as ever. Some recent publicity-seeking hearings by secular humanist politicians in the U.S. has netted much new exciting information about prosperity theology salesman Creflo Dollar, who, along with his wife Taffi, heads up Creflo Dollar Ministries and World Changers Church International. My suspicions that the Dollars were in it for, well, the dollars were provoked by the many gifts Dollar has been given for his faith: two Rolls-Royces, three private jets, and expensive digs in Georgia and New York. Someone once said, "if you want to know what God thinks of money, look at the people he gives it to." Well. Congratulations, Creflo. I'd say God-damn your prosperity theology, but I am somewhat impressed by your ability to take cynical sarcasm and turn it into real life.

The Senate investigation of Dollar is apparently part of a campaign by senator Chuck Grassley to investigate evangelical profiteering, which apparently might be tax fraud given that it's done through religious "non-profit" organizations. Also on the list of suspects are Kenneth Copeland, Bennie Hinn, Eddie Long, and others. I was very interested to learn that Dollar, Hinn and Copeland are all members of the Board of Regents at the decadent and disreputable Oral Roberts University. Other than all being members of the evangelical backbone cabal, I wonder what qualifies these fraudulent chuckleheads to rule an academic institution.

On the one hand, Grassley's neo-McCarthian witch-hunt will probably win him some votes, and he's very carefully insisting that he's not proposing any new laws, just enforcing existing ones (the ones that say you can't use a non-profit society to make a profit, or to fund a political movement, or a few other things that churches routinely do and routinely denounce). He's making that distinction, I suspect, in order to give him a defence against the religious right, which will soon be protesting persecution at the hands of the "secular humanists." However, as you may have guessed from the first sentence of this paragraph, I still think it's a terrible idea.

Don't get me wrong, I think Dollar and his ilk are a combination of hypcocritical, fraudulent, and pitiful. If Dollar really loved God, maybe he'd sell one of his Rolls Royces. (Perhaps he could sell the car, use the money to buy HIV medication for one of MSF's projects in sub-Saharan Africa, and then use one of his private jets to fly the medicine across the pond for them.) And Grassley, as a senator, certainly does have a right to insist that people follow the laws. But I really don't see this being very useful, for a couple of reasons.

First off, he's targeting religious organizations and it's going to be pretty tough to conclusively establish that religious leaders are making an illegal profit without stepping over a lot of sensitive boundaries in terms of government interference in religious practice. The implication is that Grassley is the people's hero, fighting for the little guy against the evil Dollar. But everyone donating to Dollar, or Copeland, or Hinn, already knows that those guys are taking out a fair amount of money for their religious "services." Those people who don't know, could easily find out, if it concerned them. And many of them, perhaps most of them, really don't care.

Last year the Toronto Star, up here in Canada, ran a similar exposé on a megachurch in Toronto, the idiotically named Prayer Palace, though without the added benefit of a Senate hearing with powers to subpoena witnesses. The Star described the largesse of the pastors, most of whom are part of a single father-and-sons team and all of whom have expensive cars, expensive houses, and vacation homes in Florida, which the paper suggested might have been partially paid for directy from church coffers. It also described the gripping poverty of some of the church members, many of whom have salaries far below the national average yet still put hundreds of hours of work and thousands of dollars of money into various church-related projects.

I honestly think the writers at the Star thought plenty of those people would be indignant at being manipulated. Whether or not that was what they expected, though, it definitely didn't happen. The pastors denounced the Toronto Star during the next church service and, while undercover reporters watched in stunned silence, encouraged willing parishioners to race up to the front and toss their savings onto huge piles of cash in order to "prove" their faith in the church's leadership.

Second, and related to the first, I suspect Grassley's actions are just as likely to incite retaliation from the religious right as it is to expose to the underlings of that movement the hypocrisy of its leadership. There's an intriguing siege mentality in the churches right now and people are quick to jump on each new instance of "growing persecution" of Western Christians, a notion which might seem unbelievably asinine but is readily accepted by millions of evangelicals. Grassley has picked some targets which might well fall easily - after all, plenty of conservative evangelicals hold people like Dollar and Hinn in great contempt, denouncing prosperity theology as liberal heresy. But getting the government involved in religion strikes me as a good way to bring the various conservative splinter denominations together against "secular persecution."

The notion of persecution through the tax laws isn't an original one, either. Last month, James Dobson spent almost all of his monthly Focus on the Family newsletter ranting about a "liberal attack" on his group. The IRS, you see, investigated Focus on the Family for violating the tax laws by claiming to be a nonprofit while engaging in partisan political activity. Showing that grace and compassion which Christians everywhere are well known for, Dobson seized the opportunity of being acquitted of wrongdoing to launch into an extended, vitriolic attack on Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. Way to turn the other cheek, Dobson. We must repay the liberals eye for an eye or God might lose the culture wars!

I have a fantastic solution, which actually might suit Dobson too, since Focus on the Family is a nominally secular organization: let's revoke all tax-exempt status for religious organizations. This is something a few of my non-religious friends have been suggesting for a while, but I have a different reason for it.

Every organization which at some level sets itself against mainstream culture (realistically or just rhetorically) has to make decisions about how many compromises it's going to make in order to maintain a permanent institution. The church has made a lot of such compromises, in part because in the distant past it saw the surrounding society as being basically Christian, as opposed to the "culture war" mentality which has re-emerged over the last few decades. As a youth leader my actions were constrained by contracts signed in order to maintain insurance policies; as a church member we voted in accordance with sham bylaws in order to protect the church's legal status under the provincial Societies Act; as a collective body Christians demand various rights like tax-free church status, which there is really no reason for us to have.

I can conceive of a few rationalizations to protect the church's tax-free status, most of which relate to the argument that the church is providing a valuable social service (like other charities and non-profits) and therefore the money shouldn't be taxed by the government because we want to encourage donations to such socially valuable organizations. But that doesn't hold a lot of water. For one thing, the church might provide social services, but if we want to maintain any pretense of the separation of church and state, it has to go both ways: we shouldn't be taking benefits from the state any more than we should be accepting constraints from the state. There is no cooperative relationship between church and society in some grand project to heal our society. Or at least there shouldn't be according to me, Blaisteach the Anarchist. Religious projects with government backing will eventually want to make use of the core service of government - legal force - which is something Christianity as a basically dissenting, non-coercive religion, should never touch.

The obvious response to this is that if church money is taxed it will mean two things: people may be less willing to give money to the church for fear of loxing tax deductions, and churches (at least some of which will then decide to reorganize as for-profit corporations or some other type of taxable entity) may have to pay out taxes too, further shrinking the dwindling funding pool available to our churches. That's not really a very good argument, though. There is no inherent reason why almost any of our religious activities as Christians needs to be funneled through a legally separate organization with its own bank accounts, executive managers, and other apparatus. We could find other, more personal, more direct ways of serving Christ, I'm sure, and perhaps we'd be better it, as well. Tax-free status doesn't protect Christianity or Christians: it protects institutions.

Ultimately, though, what worries me as a Christian is what any real anxiety over the tax laws says about how we run our churches. The New Testament wasn't written in a society we would today think of as a democracy, and even within that society, none of its writers were in a position to exercise any political power. So none of them thought to give us advice on what to say about tax laws. However, we ought to recognize that money doesn't belong to us, it doesn't belong to the church, and it only "belongs" to God in the sense that we assign god ultimate authority over everything on earth. Money belongs to the government and to the social order that the religious right insists is evil and secular. If they really wanted to separate themselves from the evil secular materialist worldly order of things, they wouldn't care what money was taxed or at what rate.

So, my radical solution to this contrived battle over religious non-profits' right to tax exemptions is that we extend the notion of the separation of church and state. In innumerable discussions with (particularly) American Christians over the last several years, I've lost count of the number of times I've been told "well, that's not really in the Constitution, you know." I don't think it's in the Canadian one, either, come to think of it. And I don't really care. Something does not become justifiable or unjustifiable on the basis of being written down as a government law. In this case, in any event, freedom from paying taxes doesn't protect Christians, it protects one particular form of organized "Christian" institutions, and I don't think government ought to have any role in protecting a religious organization. The church could use a little revolution now and then.

Finally, I close with an inspirational Scriptural passage for the day: flip over to Numbers 22 to see God literally talk out of his ass.


shawn said...

Cute finish to the blog.. Didn't realize it's been a year. I guess I should get off my duff and blog something when I am not so emmersed in my studies..


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