A group of 13 clergy in Ohio petitioned the IRS to investigate the organization that owns a red brick townhouse on Capitol Hill. The C Streeters claim a tax exemption as a church but the clergy group say it's more an "exclusive club for elected officials" than a church. I wasn't elated with the early reporting I saw on the claim but this NPR story is particularly notable. Here's how it begins:
The three-story, brick townhouse at 133 C Street SE sits a half-block from the Cannon House Office Building, roughly three blocks from the Capitol -- the home-away-from-home for a regular contingent of fundamentalist Christian members of Congress, who can pray in the living room and walk to work.
Hey, reporters: Stop using the term "fundamentalist" to describe people you don't like. "Fundamentalist" is a real word with a real definition. One that in no way applies to the people you're using it on.
FUNDAMENTALIST The word gained usage in an early 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. In recent years, however, fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians. In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself.
Whatever else you want to say about the group behind C Street (and I've said unfavorable things myself), the group does not believe in separation from other Christians. Almost the opposite.
This NPR story mentions four members of Congress associated with the group. They include (according to their bios) a Baptist, a Southern Baptist, a Foursquare Gospel member and an Episcopalian. Which ones are the separatists, I wonder? And are fundamentalists normally known for being Pentecostal (as in the case of the Foursquare Gospel member) and at the same time not being Pentecostal (as in the case of the others)? If your fundamentalism permits both Pentecostals and Episcopalians, just how fundamentalist are you? Those needing a basic primer in fundamentalism could do worse than Laurie Goodstein's "fundamentalism for dummies" piece that ran in the New York Times years ago.
I was alerted to the NPR story by a reader who sent a letter to the outfit after hearing the story broadcast on Morning Edition. He had a number of valid complaints. The story says most visitors and residents of the C Street house are Republican but it says nothing about the political views of the protesting group. The only members of Clergy VOICE who I saw quoted were members of the United Church of Christ (the rest are mainline, too):
"Is there public worship?" said the leader of the group of ministers, Pastor Eric Williams of the North Congregational United Church of Christ in Columbus, Ohio. "Is it open to the public? Are there trained leaders who serve the church? C Street really has none of those marks that make it a church."
I know nothing about IRS regulations or whoever else gets to define what is and what isn't a church. And I'm very interested in the outcome of this case. But it just seems like basic reporting to tell us more about the theological and political views of the group hoping for an investigation. I couldn't find anything official about Clergy VOICE (maybe they're in a secret-off with the C Street folks), but some of the signers of the letter to the IRS have public views that could be explored and characterized. Not that anyone ever thinks mainline churches, much less the United Church of Christ, have a particular political bent.
The complaint from the Ohio clergy is that the C Street residence is not really a church. To explore that question, NPR discusses a series of scandals involving members of Congress affiliated with the group. Gov. Mark Sanford "said he'd turned back to C Street for help" after being caught in his extra-marital affair. As the reader who sent us the story noted:
I can certainly appreciate how one could question an organization's qualification as a church if it offers help to a former member. Furthermore, to offer help to a publicly professing sinner would certainly go beyond the boundaries of a church.
Then the story talks about another member of Congress who had an affair while living at the house. Our reader notes: "Once again it is clear that C Street could not be a church since it houses sinners and hypocrites." I'm not entirely sure what we're supposed to think about the anecdote where one resident tries to reconcile two families that have been hurt by infidelity.
Anyway, and again I say this having no knowledge of what the law says about the merits of the complaint against the group, the story characterizes the C Street folks as being little more than a residentially based prayer group for some of the country's top leaders.
While the vast majority of lawmakers who stay at C Street are Republicans, regardless of party, they are all followers of an intimate, high-powered -- and some say closed -- Christian network.
Some might suggest that prayer groups are, by definition, "intimate" and that prayer groups whose members consist of high-ranking government officials will, by definition, be "high-powered."
I think our reader says it well in his letter:
I can't help but notice the multiple charged words used in this story: "fundamentalists," "powerful," "secretive," "scandal." Now there may be important issues raised by these thirteen ministers regarding the boundaries between church and state and the tax-exempt status of religious organizations. And I have no preconceived notions of what C Street is or is not. But this piece paints a biased picture of the community (accentuating the political aspects of C Street not mentioning potential political issues with the complainants) and at best demonstrates an ill-informed (and at worst, biased) viewpoint of churches and conservative Christians.
Rex Barney, the old PA announcer at Memorial Stadium and Camden Yards, used to say "Give that fan a contract!" whenever a fan made a particularly good catch of a foul ball. I think we should have something similar for readers, such as the one I've quoted here, who do particularly good media analysis on their own time.