Having read a bit more UCC/IRS thing, I’m really just as ignorant as I was, and only slightly more opinionated.
First, a word about the United Church of Christ. It’s often characterized as among the most liberal of Protestant denominations. That’s correct, but should be understood in light of the fact that the UCC is also among the least hierarchical. The denomination has no real authority over individual churches; churches own their own buildings, hire their own pastors, and do pretty much whatever they want. That is of course very much in the tradition of the Congregationalists who are one of the constituents of the UCC. It’s also one of the few things we have in common with the even-less-centralized and otherwise similar-in-name-only Churches of Christ.
The denominational leadership may be quite liberal, but individual congregations (and congregants) are all over the place theologically and politically. The mean is, I think, somewhat left-of-center, but not nearly as much so as the denominational leadership. Every couple of years there is a General Synod that passes noble resolutions of a liberal bent, of which most actual UCC members (me included) are blissfully unaware.
[I should say that I’m one of the more liberal members, politically and theologically, of a relatively liberal church.]
The point there is that anything you read about the UCC and its politics does not necessarily have much to do with any specific UCC church.
Anyway. Here’s how I understand the Obama brouhaha:
At some point before Obama declared his candidacy, the UCC invited him to give the keynote address at last year’s General Synod. He is after all the most prominent member of the UCC. I don’t know whether the invitation came before or after it was clear he was thinking about running.
He was a candidate by the time of the General Synod (in June). The UCC, very correctly, attempted to make it clear that he was speaking not as a presidential candidate but as a UCC member with something to say about faith and public life.
No campaigning was allowed inside the building, but there were campaigners outside.
Most of Obama’s speech was unexceptionable, but he did mention his candidacy twice, once more or less in passing, and once in what sure looks like standard campaign fare:
It’s been several months now since I announced I was running for president. In that time, I’ve had the chance to talk with Americans all across this country…
…I have made a solemn pledge that I will sign a universal health care bill into law by the end of my first term as president that will cover every American and cut the cost of a typical family’s premiums by up to $2500 a year. That’s not simply a matter of policy or ideology – it’s a moral commitment.
The IRS is now investigating whether that violated the guidelines for churches. This may or may not have been spurred by a complaint from UCCtruths, which seems to be the UCC’s version of a heretical splinter group–they think the denomination is too liberal. [I can’t tell whether the IRS ever says what prompts investigations.] Here‘s the IRS letter to the UCC–unfortunately, I can’t find the questions they attached, so I don’t actually know what the specific violations they’re investigating.
As far as I can tell (not having been there, and not being a lawyer), the UCC certainly didn’t endorse Obama or otherwise support it (although I’m sure that most of the UCC’s leadership does in fact support him). The problems are with Obama himself, and those two little references to his candidacy, which looks to me like a clear violation of the IRS guidelines (see page 9). It seems silly that the whole thing could have been avoiding with 10 seconds’ thought and a red pen.
What I don’t know is what the IRS typically does and doesn’t bother with in practice. Presidential candidates are forever campaigning in churches, whether they call it that or not. I can’t believe that none of them have never let the word “candidate” slip out before.
There does seem to be a real, fundamental problem with the IRS rules, and their assumption that a candidate’s appearances can be neatly separated into as-a-candidate and non-candidate events. Everything a Presidential candidate does is a campaign appearance. Candidates don’t go to the bathroom without campaign spin. Obeying the spirit of the rules would require forbidding candidates to go to church at all. Obeying the letter–you can’t say the magic words “candidate” and “election”–is just disingenuous.
For what it’s worth, I think it’s very unlikely that the UCC will lose its tax-exempt status over this. The denomination has a grade-A lawyer working pro bono now, and I imagine it will win the case (if “case” is even the right word) outright.