I’m as shocked and confused about the congressional hearings on IRS persecution of Christians as everyone else in the country is. Who would have ever thought—even in our era of political polarization—that there were governmental employees and whole agencies in our own nation that would single out followers of Jesus for harassment and, yes, persecution?
If we’re learning anything from the hearings, it’s that such persecution is indeed happening. I know that “persecution” is a strong word. And by using it, I’m not suggesting that the persecution Christians are facing in our nation is the same as that of those heroic martyrs of the faith dying even today in Muslim nations. We’re not at that point…yet.
But let’s not fool ourselves, what the hearings clearly reveal—despite the squirming and whining from the various witnesses—is that the IRS in an official capacity singled out conservative organizations in general and Christian ones in particular for harassment as they applied for tax-exempt status.
The poster child for all this is Lois Lerner, director of the IRS’s Exempt Organizations Division. Her acknowledgement that IRS personnel intimidated the groups were a key piece in the on-going congressional nquiry. In Wednesday’s telling development, Lerner herself took the Fifth Amendment and refused to give testimony that could be used against her if the matter winds up in criminal court.
During her tenure, hundreds of conservative, Christian applications were targeted for harassment. One in particular stands out. In 2009 the Iowa Coalition for Life, a Christian pro-life organization, applied for tax-exempt status. Among the many documents required by the federal agency there was an additional one that was, well, peculiar to say the least. The IRS wanted to know about their prayer meetings.
That’s right, the IRS demanded to know what the group was praying for.
Here’s an excerpt of the letter the group received on June 22, 2009:
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 organizations spends on prayer groups as compared with the other activities of the organization.
I guess the IRS’s Exempt Organization Division under Ms. Lerner’s able leadership is unfamiliar with the First Amendment, political sensitivity, standards of common decency, rational thought and good sense—in that order.
Turns out, though, that this isn’t Lerner’s first excursion into harassment of Christians. Before she arrived at the IRS, Lerner served as head of the Enforcement division of the Federal Election Commission from 1986-2001. During her tenure it came to her attention that Lt. Col. Oliver North and Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson had engaged in what she apparently perceived as unauthorized prayer so she ordered an investigation of the Christian Coalition, an organization they were both active in. The inquiry was even more onerous than that experienced by the Iowa Coalition for Life. You can read the entire account at http://www.weeklystandard.com/blogs/irss-lerner-had-history-harassment-inappropriate-religious-inquiries-fec_725004.html
The following deposition between Lt. Col. North and the FEC lawyer acting on Lerner’s orders took place in the late 1990’s. It could be used in a comedy show if not so deadly earnest. In the transcript “Q” is the government lawyer. “A” is North. “O” is North’s attorney.
Q: (reading from a letter from Oliver North to Pat Robertson) “‘Betsy and I thank you for your kind regards and prayers.’ The next paragraph is, ‘Please give our love to Dede and I hope to see you in the near future.’ Who is Dede?”
A: “That is Mrs. Robertson.”
Q: “What did you mean in paragraph 2, about thanking -you and your wife thanking Pat Robertson for kind regards?”
A: “Last time I checked in America, prayers were still legal. I am sure that Pat had said he was praying for my family and me in some correspondence or phone call.”
Q: “Would that be something that Pat Robertson was doing for you?”
A: “I hope a lot of people were praying for me, Holly.”
Q: “But you knew that Pat Robertson was?”
A: “Well, apparently at that time I was reﬂecting something that Pat had either, as I said, had told me or conveyed to me in some fashion, and it is my habit to thank people for things like that.”
Q: “During the time that you knew Pat Robertson, was it your impression that he had – he was praying for you?”
O: “I object. There is no allegation that praying creates a violation of the Federal Election Campaign Act and there is no such allegation in the complaint. This is completely irrelevant and intrusive on the religious beliefs of this witness.”
O: “It is a very strange line of questioning. You have got to be kidding, really. What are you thinking of, to ask questions like that? I mean, really. I have been to some strange depositions, but I don’t think I have ever had anybody inquire into somebody’s prayers. I think that is really just outrageous. And if you want to ask some questions regarding political activities, please do and then we can get over this very quickly. But if you want to ask about somebody’s religious activities, that is outrageous.”
Q: “I am allowed to make-’’
O: “We are allowed not to answer and if you think the Commission is going to permit you to go forward with a question about somebody’s prayers, I just don’t believe that. I just don’t for a moment believe that. I ﬁnd that the most outrageous line of questioning. I am going to instruct my witness not to answer.”
Q: “On what grounds?”
O: “We are not going to let you inquire about people’s religious beliefs or activities, period. If you want to ask about someone’s prayers-Jeez, I don’t know what we are thinking of. But the answer is, no, people are not going to respond to questions about people’s prayers, no.”
Q: “Will you take that, at the first break, take it up- we will do whatever we have to do.”
O: “You do whatever you think you have to do to get them to answer questions about what people are praying about.”
Q: “I did not ask Mr. North what people were praying about I am allowed to inquire about the relationship between-’’
O: “Absolutely, but you have asked the question repeatedly. If you move on to a question other than about prayer, be my guest.
But this isn’t really about Lois Lerner. I don’t think for one minute that she’s unique in government service or that she’s acting on her own. People like her are legion in today’s public service. True Believers acting for the good of the whole while attacking those whose beliefs formed the nation to begin with.
In modern America, this is what persecution looks like. It’s not rogue, illegal or unmannerly. It occurs in clean, well-lit offices and is carried out by dutiful public servants following accepted policies, advised by articulate lawyers, convinced they’re doing the right thing. Persecution is becoming institutionalized. And that’s what should concern us.
All this begs the question that we really should be asking: What are they scared of? What is it about Christians that motivated Lerner’s office to single us out? While there are many questions about all the whole affair we can’t answer yet, this one we can. We were singled out for the same reason that Christians of every era—some more so than others—are singled out. We’re singled out because we believe.
And for those who don’t believe in anything beyond the tyrannical power of the state, the mere presence of those who have a higher vision is unacceptable.
The Apostle’s Creed (which Baptists don’t use as much as we should) says: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord…I believe in the Holy Spirit…” Christians have looked to this creed since the earliest days of the church as the expression of our deepest loyalties.
In other words we believe the state along with its apparatchiks doesn’t have the final say, in this life or the next. There’s a higher source of authority that one day will hold them as well as us to account. And it’s that belief that makes us intolerable to those who fancy themselves as sovereign.