Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher


Stop the presses! Religious people being religious!

posted by Rod Dreher

Did you read the massive, acres-and-acres-of-newsprint story in the New York Times, in which they documented how American tax policy was underwriting the settlement of the West Bank by right-wing Israeli Jews? It was the kind of “ooh, scary religious people!” piece that the Times just loves, because they really don’t seem to understand how religion works. Slate blogger Tom Scocca smartly dismisses the whole idiotic story as another example of NYT cluelessness. Excerpt:

So: a**holes and violence. Normal times on the West Bank. Why do we care about this today? Because a team of three Times reporters has uncovered a scandal: the religious group that sends the volunteers to Israel enjoys tax breaks, as a nonprofit. It is “a surprising juxtaposition”:

As the American government seeks to end the four-decade Jewish settlement enterprise and foster a Palestinian state in the West Bank, the American Treasury helps sustain the settlements through tax breaks on donations to support them.

The Bible-thumping crazies are inside the Treasury! Or, in other words, the secular government of the United States, barred by fundamental Constitutional principles from involvement in religion, has goals and policies that are not identical to the goals and policies of certain religious organizations in the United States. It is as if the church and the state were somehow separated or something.
(Is giving the churches tax breaks an appropriate way to keep the government and the church out of each other’s business, or is it a self-defeating measure that ends up creating a religious establishment? Worth discussing! Not in this story, though.)
Here are some other things that the Times might discover American nonprofits doing, in direct contradiction of United States government policy:
Organizing prayer in schools.
Promoting gender difference.
Spreading religion.

Rod here. Guess what? Planned Parenthood is a tax-exempt, non-profit organization. So is the Human Rights Campaign, which pushes for the legalization of same-sex marriage. People who give money to these organizations are taking advantage of tax deductions to support abortion rights and gay marriage. Big freaking deal. That’s how non-profits work in under our system. Only on Planet New York Times, when it involves right-wing Israelis and Evangelical American Christians, is this something to have a front-page hissy over. Mind you, my complaint (and Scocca’s) is not that the Israeli settlement policy, or the involvement of some US Christians in advocating it, is right or wrong; it’s that the Times actually thinks it has uncovered news here.



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Peter

posted July 7, 2010 at 2:39 pm


When Planned Parenthood or HRC begin working to set-up de facto prison camps and circumvent U.S. foreign policy and international human rights, we can talk. Otherwise, your comparison is nonsensical.



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Rod Dreher

posted July 7, 2010 at 3:20 pm


Wow, that didn’t take long for someone to completely miss the point. Which is this: in our system, it’s ridiculous to claim that because Tax-Exempt Organization A is engaged in advocating Policy X, that therefore it is a shocking abuse of U.S. tax law. To many Americans, providing abortions and advocating for abortion rights is a heinous human rights violation. If you picked up tomorrow’s Washington Times and saw a skrillion-word piece detailing how tax policy aids and abets the extermination of unborn life, wouldn’t you think that was … reaching? I would, and I’m pro-life.
Non-profit groups do all kinds of things that may or may not be in the interests of the U.S. government. So what? If you want to argue that there should be no such things as tax-exempt organizations, fine. But as long as we have them, stories like the Times’s look like silly liberal special pleading (and if a conservative publication did the same about liberal tax-exempt groups, I’d say the same thing).



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Peter

posted July 7, 2010 at 3:34 pm


But the NYT is not exactly anti-Israel. Liberal critics would argue that the NYT always has a pro-Israel, anti-Palestine (even anti-two state solution) bias.
It is noteworthy that millions of dollars go to tax exempt organizations that are undermining foreign policy and arguably violating international human rights. Would you feel the same way about a story about money going to Hamas through U.S.-based nonprofits?



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Rod Dreher

posted July 7, 2010 at 3:44 pm


Of course I wouldn’t. Hamas is a terrorist organization, one that openly advocates and commits murder of Israelis. I don’t support the settlers movement, but until the settlers start systematically, as a matter of stated policy, slaughtering Palestinian civilians, your comparison is invalid.
Besides, your ideology is getting in the way of your ability to see facts clearly. The NYT editorially supports a two-state solution, opposes the settlers, and has for a long time. Look at today’s editorial page for the latest example.



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Dan O.

posted July 7, 2010 at 3:53 pm


If funding paramilitaries or private land deals in occupied territories is “religious people being religious”, maybe I ought to join those nagging militant atheists.
But, whatever. By all means let’s encourage giving money to these radical settler groups, so we can spend more working to undo the harm they do to our interests, and then fund the official Israeli military to control them. Because it’s religious people being religious. Let the not-so religious people who form the official military in Israel ensure their security and deal with their recalcitrance.
And, Peter, this is not about support for Israel. This has to do with support for pseudo-renegades within Israel. With support comes influence. There is no influence side of the bargain for this stuff.
On the other hand, from the point of view of money, this is all very small stuff. $200 million over a decade? That’s chump change. Taxed at 35% that comes to 7 million per year. I bet there are individuals who cheat the treasury more per year than that. This make it hardly news-worthy. I bet cash smuggling to settlers makes this look piddly.
But there is some (small) public value to this stuff, especially to New Yorkers: you should know where your donations are going, because you may find that the use of your donations don’t square with your values. I know a lot of people who use services run by Chabad (e.g. nursery schools, daycare) and then get pestered relentlessly to give money to various charities. They feel obligated because the cost of the services are so much lower than the competition. But they don’t know where their money is going. Given that the conspiracy theory that Rabin was killed by the Mossad is common among the Lubovitch community in Brooklyn, I’m pretty sure the values of their religious charities don’t match mine.
That said, I didn’t need this article to know that. It’s overblown for sure.



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Scott Lahti

posted July 7, 2010 at 3:59 pm


Though I incline to side here on the merits with Our Host and the Slate guy against the NYT, I am amused to note the larger imperatives driving them each in their respective ideational precincts, as outlined in a piece on feminist web-sites over at Slate’s gendered offshoot XX; the writer noted the [I have removed specific partisan tags to highlight points more generic]
“…blogosphere’s tendency to tap into the market force of what I’ve come to think of as ‘outrage world’—the regularly occurring firestorms stirred up on mainstream, for-profit…blogs…They’re ignited by writers who are pushing readers to feel what the writers claim is righteously indignant rage…These firestorms are great for page-view-pimping bloggy business. But they promote the exact opposite of…thought and rational discourse, and the comment wars they elicit almost inevitably devolve into didactic one-upsmanship and…cliché…Page views are generated by commenters who are moved to speak out, then revisit the comment thread endlessly to see how people have responded to their ideas. Ergo, more provocative posts tend to generate far more page views, and the easiest way for…writers to be provocative is to stoke readers’ insecurities—just in a different way [from those they attack]…The only difference is the level of doublespeak and manipulation that it takes to produce that result…It’s certainly important to have honest, open conversations about the issues that reliably rake in comments and page views…But it may just be that it’s not possible to have these conversations online. On the Web, writers tend to play up the most jealousy- and insecurity-evoking aspects of controversy, and then anonymous commenters—who bear no responsibility for the effects of their statements—take the writers’ hints to any possible extreme. It’s just how the Internet works.
“At the same time, many posts on these sites aren’t consciously written with the twisted mess of intentions I just described. Probably many of the writers feel that their work is helping []their chosen causes] But [for those writers] whose careers are dependent on maintaining their stats, the pressure to continuously hit “outrage world” topics must be intense. As I write this…in the comments sections [of two typical stories], readers are responding with naked bitterness…
“On and on it goes, as commenters click again and again on the same post to follow the conversation, generating the traffic that enables the site to sell ad space. Right now, the ad alongside those headlines is for Cheetos.”



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Rod Dreher

posted July 7, 2010 at 4:44 pm


Dan:
If funding paramilitaries or private land deals in occupied territories is “religious people being religious”, maybe I ought to join those nagging militant atheists.
But Dan, a conservative could say of American religious-left activists who support the Palestinians, “If funding people who want to wipe the Jewish state off the face of the earth is ‘religious people being religious,’ maybe… .” You see?
The point here is not what the US religious groups back. It’s a good and important story, to point out how the settler movement is supported by American Evangelicals. The focus of the story is to make some sort of point about how the US tax code works to help the settler movement. That’s about as shocking as saying that the US federal highway system — supported by tax dollars! — works to aid and abet illegal immigration, because smugglers use the roadways, and Juan drives his beater from the barrio to Highland Park to take care of the rich lady’s garden. It’s a meaningless connection.



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Chuck Bloom

posted July 7, 2010 at 5:27 pm


Without delving into the specifics of this story (it just all gives me a major migraine), the NYT often cannot separate the dream from the reality. It’s not alone.
I highly doubt anyone can actually find a religion within the confines of the modern world that is truly practiced as it is suppose to be. It just cannot happen. There is NO purity in the world among humas today. But everyone thinks it should be that way which is just a pipe dream.
All that mankind do is be as faithful as possible to whatever he/she believes. But following someone else’s concept of what that religion SHOULD be is fool’s gold.



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Broken Yogi

posted July 7, 2010 at 5:48 pm


I think the point of these objections to your “no story here, move along” attitude is that in this case taxpayers are subsidizing what is clearly a highly political foreign investment in a very morally and ethically and politically questionable that goes directly against actual American foreign policy, which opposes settlements.
Yes, you can say that all tax-deductable charitable contributions could, theoretically, do the same, but the fact is that they don’t. Tax deductions for Planned Parenthood might go against the wishes of some taxpayers, but it doesn’t go against the laws or policies of the US government. Likewise, contributions to churches and religions groups doesn’t go against government policy, since government has no policy against religious groups (only against government being mixed up with religious groups in the first place).
Imagine if taxpayer money were subsidizing Hamas, or other terrorist groups, or Apartheid, or China’s colonization of Tibet, etc. A lot of outcry would result. What I’m curious about is how a group that spends its money on west bank settlements receives tax-deductible status in the first place? Isn’t this a clearly political use of funds outlawed by tax-deductible organizations? How does this slip through?



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Dan O.

posted July 7, 2010 at 5:53 pm


“But Dan, a conservative could say of American religious-left activists who support the Palestinians, “If funding people who want to wipe the Jewish state off the face of the earth is ‘religious people being religious,’ maybe… .” You see?”
Your analogy indicates that you think an accidental effect of religious charities is this kind of political work, as promoting illegal immigration is an accidental effect of the highway system.
But what this article indicates is that for many religious charities the political work (e.g. annexing the West Bank, or wiping Israel off the map) is the intended and sole reason for their existence. Am I missing something?
If the amount of money was significant I’d find it troubling. I’d find it troubling if it were flowing significantly to anti-Israel organizations. I think you read me wrong, I have equal disdain for them as I do for these radical settlers. However, having relatives in the Israeli military that have (unhappily) protected these fools, I take it a bit personally.
As it is, I find it somewhat amusing that evangelicals are working on a vineyard to help annex land for Israel. If they think they’re making a difference, that’s cool, they do it at their own risk. It’s the Kahane-style people that scare me.



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Your Name

posted July 7, 2010 at 6:48 pm


You liked to the PromiseKeepers website under “Promot[ing] Gender Differences”.
didn’t know anyone’s gender could be ‘promoted’. Doya think people can switch genders now???



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stari_momak

posted July 7, 2010 at 9:28 pm


I highly doubt anyone can actually find a religion within the confines of the modern world that is truly practiced as it is suppose to be. It just cannot happen.
Actually, I think the settlers are pretty much practicing Judaism as it is supposed to be practiced. Its an ethnoreligion, they are clearing the land they feel that God promised them of those who are not Chosen.
The curious thing to me is that Xian evangelicals support this. Don’t they know that the Arab Xian communities are some of the oldest, if not the oldest in the world? That Arab Xians in Palestine and Lebanon are probably the descendants of some of the first Jewish converts to Xianity?



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Rod Dreher

posted July 7, 2010 at 9:33 pm


The link to PK was in Scocca’s original blog. PK is explicitly for men.
Yogi: I think the point of these objections to your “no story here, move along” attitude is that in this case taxpayers are subsidizing what is clearly a highly political foreign investment in a very morally and ethically and politically questionable that goes directly against actual American foreign policy, which opposes settlements.
Now, think about this for a minute. If memory serves, the pacifist Quakers — a tax-exempt religious organization — actively opposed sanctions on Iraq, in direct violation of US policy at the time. Would you have found this intolerable? How about work the Catholic Church and other churches do to defend illegal immigrants, who are here in violation of American law (it is not against American law to support the settler movement in Israel, even materially)? You think the pro-illegal immigrant churches are misusing their tax exempt status to encourage action that not only violate American policy priorities, but U.S. law?
Really? I mean, you really think that for a church, charity or NGO to advocate policies at odds with the US government’s views is a scandal, and constitutes taxpayer subsidy? I don’t think you believe that at all. I think you don’t like the Evangelicals or the Israeli settlers. I myself oppose what the settlers are doing, and wish the American Christians weren’t helping them. I don’t mind at all anybody objecting to what they do. But if you really want to characterize tax exemptions for charities that undermine stated US government policy as wrong in principle, you are pulling the rug out from under a lot of liberal church and secular activist groups. “Free speech for me, but not for thee” is what you’re really saying. If we get a Republican president who backs the settler movement as a matter of official US policy, surely you’re not going to condemn American groups working to undermine that US policy because they cross the US government. Are you? If not, what does that say about your position on the Evangelicals? How, exactly, is that anti-Evangelical prejudice masquerading as principle?



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Scott Lahti

posted July 7, 2010 at 10:13 pm


Funny, isn’t it, how easily the procedural liberalism of the self-declared liberal gets jettisoned once it becomes clear that any liberalism worthy of that proud term entails the defense as well of the liberties of the illiberal. Ah, well. At least we have the occasional Hentoff, Hitchens and Kaminer, among others, to remind us of just what it means to be a grown-up in such precincts.



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Broken Yogi

posted July 7, 2010 at 10:19 pm


Rod,
It’s my understanding that there are serious limits on the political activity that tax-exempt organizations can engage in, whether they are churches or secular institutions. For example, Churches can’t engage in explicit electioneering without endangering their tax-exempt status. They can’t funnel tax-exempt money into political activities such as lobbying, taking out ads on political matters, etc. So I think you are categorically wrong that we don’t already have in place measures to stop this sort of thing. What I wonder about is how these activities are able to skirt these kinds of laws. Perhaps because the activity is taking place in a foreign country. But again, I’d think that this would still constitute a violation of the principle of not giving tax-exempt status to political activities.
Well, perhaps building houses is not considered “political activity”, but in this case, it clearly is. So it’s an example of a grey area in which something that may not categorically be considered political activity actually is. I have a hard time thinking of a similar situation on the liberal side of the fence. Can you?



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Ostrea

posted July 7, 2010 at 10:28 pm


Broken Yogi says: “Imagine if taxpayer money were subsidizing Hamas, or other terrorist groups, or Apartheid, or China’s colonization of Tibet, etc. A lot of outcry would result.”
Why should an outcry result? Why should anyone give a damn? I’ll bet that taxpayer supported Planned Parenthood has killed far more people than Hamas. How many of the “Free Tibet” bumpersticker crowd give a damn about that?



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Broken Yogi

posted July 8, 2010 at 12:52 am


Abortion issues don’t crowd out all other forms of outrage in the world. Many don’t even consider it an outrage. Haven’t you noticed? That doesn’t mean the same people aren’t outraged by other things.



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James Nicola

posted July 8, 2010 at 5:12 am


Rod,
You seem to be missing the suggestion in the article that the funds given are not just going to support advocacy work – which would be fine – but are being used to buy ‘guard dogs, bulletproof vests, rifle scopes…’
If this is right, which I’d like to see proof of, then I think there’s an important line that’s been crosssed. If, to use your example, the Quakers who actively opposed sanctions on Iraq had not limited their activity to advocating against them, but had instead sent bulletproof vests to those who were smuggling goods in violation of the sanctions in order to protect the smugglers against the US and allied patrols trying to enforce the sanctions – then I think there would have been an outcry, and I think it would have been right. Nonprofits should be allowed to advocate against US policy; they should not be able to subsidise the breaking of it.
James Nicola



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Rombald

posted July 8, 2010 at 6:44 am


As far as this specific issue is concerned, I’m with Momak 100%. New experience for me!
On the wider issue, I don’t really see why there should be any tax-exempt groups, religious or secular. Almost all charities are involved in activities that could be seen as political, or contrary to some govt policies.
However, it is arguable that some mainstream secular charities – the sort that have charity/thrift shops on the local highstreet – Save the Children, hospices, Help the Aged, etc. – are doing pretty uncontroversial good work, and should be supported by tax-exempt status. However, I don’t see why that should apply to religious bodies as a whole. If a mediaeval church has to be renovated, I can see that as collective benefit on a cultural/aesthetic level, and if a religious group is running soup kitchens or something, I can also see that as simple good work, but I don’t see why activities to which most tax-payers may be indifferent (eg. central heating in the church) or hostile (eg. proselytism) should have tax exemption.



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Dan O.

posted July 8, 2010 at 8:10 am


Stari said: “Actually, I think the settlers are pretty much practicing Judaism as it is supposed to be practiced. Its an ethnoreligion, they are clearing the land they feel that God promised them of those who are not Chosen.”
The thinking of those who believe the situation is that simple is about as primitive and archaic as the thinking of people who understand the covenant that way. It’s an opinion shared by radical settlers and anti-semites, but few others.
I think Rod’s post indicates a very slanted understanding of Israel. If he really believe that Quaker’s opposition to sanctions is similar to charities whose specific purpose is to facilitate illegal land deals in an occupied territory, there’s nothing more to say. If this is part of a reasonable religious person’s account of religious freedom, score one for the radical atheists. (But I don’t think it is). It sounds instead part of an account of religious sovereignty.
As I said, this story is overblown because of the money involved. But if, as a matter of principle, one thinks it’s okay for religious charities to work against internal laws in occupied territories (both of the the occupied and of the occupiers) and against the foreign policies of their base government, then one likens religious organizations to sovereigns. And btw, this work is not mere protest, but vehicles, guns, and organizations to facilitate illegal land sales… I don’t really believe that’s religious people being religious. I’m more inclined to believe that it’s certain religious people being unwitting shills for neocons, egged on by their overinflated sense of religious persecution. The less of that there is, the sooner a viable peace settlement can be worked out.



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Jillian

posted July 8, 2010 at 12:26 pm


Actually, I think the settlers are pretty much practicing Judaism as it is supposed to be practiced. Its an ethnoreligion, they are clearing the land they feel that God promised them of those who are not Chosen.
“Justice, justice shall you pursue” –Deuteronomy 16:20
“Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt. –Exodus 22:21
“You shall not oppress a stranger, since you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger, for you also were strangers in the land of Egypt.” –Exodus 23:9
“When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong.” –Leviticus 19:33
“The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God.” — Leviticus 19:34
“Now in case a countryman of yours becomes poor and his means with regard to you falter, then you are to sustain him, like a stranger or a sojourner, that he may live with you.” –Leviticus 25:35
“Then I charged your judges at that time, saying, ‘Hear the cases between your fellow countrymen, and judge righteously between a man and his fellow countryman, or the alien who is with him.’” –Deuteronomy 1:16
“So show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” –Deuteronomy 10:19
“‘Cursed is he who distorts the justice due an alien, orphan, and widow.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’ — Deuteronomy 27:19
“and do not oppress the widow or the orphan, the stranger or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.’ –Zechariah 7:10



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Siarlys Jenkins

posted July 8, 2010 at 2:58 pm


This is why we should end all 501(c)(3) tax exemptions. Let people make charitable donations because they support the cause, not because they are getting a tax break. (I take the standard deduction, and I donate as much as I can afford anyway).
If we allow The Government to grant tax exempt status, then The Government decides who is and is not worthy of the status. Then, it works out that The Government is responsible for anything done by those who are granted such status.
Now before anyone gets upset about taxing churches or taking money out of offering plates or secular donations, these are two different questions.
1) The donor does NOT get a tax deduction for making the donation.
2) Private voluntary donations, without any good or service given in exchange, are NOT income — So OxfamAmerica would not be paying income tax on receipts.
3) It is already true that if a church, or secular non-profit, runs a business to make money, revenues from that business enterprise ARE taxable.
Some years ago, a hot-shot in the Berkeley, CA revenue department tried to apply a licensing fee on non-profits in the city to churches. The city council ordered the matter dropped like a hot potato. A clueless liberal from Hastings Law School pontificated, before the council did so, that if the license fee applied to all nonprofits, it would be unconstitutional not to apply it to the churches. Earth to Hastings: If a minister cannot preach without a license, that infringes the free exercise of religion. If a government body licenses a minister, that is an establishment of religion.
Just get the IRS out of the business of endorsing what nonprofits do, or don’t do, and let private citizens associate for any legal common purpose that moves them to do so.
Sicily retorted



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