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IRS eyeing religion, politics

October 19, 2012
Mike Myer

Occasionally the pastor of your church may preach on the Ten Commandments. "Thou shalt not steal," he may remind you.

Does he add that Christianity forbids shoplifting at the local grocery store? Does he say embezzling from your employer is wrong?

Probably not. Once the foundation - "Thou shalt not steal" - is laid, that ought to be enough.

Why, then, do some in the clergy believe they need to instruct their congregations on how to vote in elections?

It's been going on for years but now, the Internal Revenue Service is taking another look at the issue. Churches are tax-exempt, and one of the requirements for such status is to avoid involvement in politics.

It is a conflict that raises many questions. For example, if a priest feels a candidate's policies are strongly anti-Christian, how can he in good conscience not campaign against that person?

Clearly, however, the IRS requirement is linked closely to the Constitutional requirement of separation of church and state. What happens if, say, an entire denomination begins actively and specifically supporting an incumbent office holder, while benefitting from a tax exemption. That would - and should - raise eyebrows.

We tolerate criticism of policy. Roman Catholics have every right to complain about "Obamacare's" requirements on birth control coverage in health insurance policies, for example. President Barack Obama's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, is perfectly free to say from the pulpit, "God damn America."

But when a pastor goes from general criticism or support for policy to actively campaigning for or against specific candidates, a line is crossed. Some churchgoers, even those who agree with ministers' conclusions, are uncomfortable when they sense politics in the pulpit.

Look at it this way: If your minister is good at his job, he's already instilled your faith's basic values in you. It should be up to you to decide which candidates uphold those values best. Making the decision for you is an insult to your intelligence.

My guess is that unless a substantial number of pastors become involved in campaigning, the IRS will stay out of the controversy. What pastors tempted to engage in the practice should worry about is how many of their parishioners will decide to stay out of the pews.

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I don't belong to an organized political party, goes the old joke - I'm a Democrat. For some time in West Virginia, that would have been more appropriate for Republicans.

For decades registered Democrat voters held a two-to-one edge over Mountain State Republicans. That is changing, with more GOP voters and, just as important, a large number of "no-party" conservatives.

But the old regime was not a good environment for Republicans, though there were occasional trips to the Governor's Mansion for them. Where it counted, in the Legislature, Democrats maintained a firm grip. Years ago, a GOP state senator remarked to me he and his party colleagues could caucus in a phone booth. He was literally correct.

Things are changing. Look at the Nov. 6 election ballot if you doubt that. In nearly all the House of Delegates races, the Republican Party is fielding candidates. In 10 of them, by my count, the GOP candidates have no Democrat opposition. By the way, if you want to know where the center of Republican power is, look to the Eastern Panhandle. There, six Republicans are running for the House without Democrat opposition.

The state Senate remains a Democrat preserve, however. Of the 17 seats on the ballot, just seven include Republican candidates.

Some of them are excellent, however.

In the 2nd District, Republican Lynn Davis of Wellsburg has mounted a very strong race for the House of Delegates. Davis is committed to the sort of two-party government that has been missing under Democrat domination of the Capitol - and she, too, has the fiscally conservative attitude our state needs.

Republicans also are showing an appealing pragmatism that should improve prospects for bipartisanship, however. An example of that is right here in Ohio County, the 3rd Delegate District. Two House seats are up for election, and they are contested by two Republicans and two Democrats.

Incumbent Delegate Erikka Storch of Wheeling has done a good job in her first term and seems likely to win re-election as a Republican. But the other Republican, Larry Tighe, isn't terribly popular among leaders of the GOP - some of whom support incumbent Delegate Ryan Ferns, a Democrat. Both Storch and Ferns ought to be returned to the House.

Look higher on the ballot. West Virginia has three seats in Congress - two of which are held by Republicans. First District Rep. David McKinley and Second District Rep. Shelley Capito have represented the state well and have their re-election bids virtually locked up.

Getting organized to put more GOP lawmakers in Charleston is only half the battle. Getting something done once there is the other half.

To make that happen, Republicans have crafted a realistic legislative blueprint. It includes tax reform, improvements in public schools, more attention to infrastructure, legal and regulatory reform and election and ethics reform. Job creation is the plan's keystone.

Finally, look at the top executive branch jobs in state government. Often during the past, Republicans couldn't be found to run for some of those positions. But this time around, from governor on down, Republicans have strong candidates. Every position -governor, secretary of state, attorney general, auditor, treasurer and agriculture commissioner - is a real race between a Democrat and a Republican. In the judicial branch, two Republicans, Allen Loughry and John Yoder, are running hard against Democrats Letitia Chafin and incumbent Justice Robin Davis for the state Supreme Court.

Make no mistake about it: The Republican Party is making a comeback in West Virginia - and it's a strong one, aimed at giving Mountain State residents the benefits of real two-party government.

Mike Myer is executive editor of The Intelligencer and the Wheeling News-Register. He can be reached via e-mail at



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