Camel’s Nose Under the Tent

In news that didn’t get much attention in Washington (other than as one of the thirty-six articles on “scandals” that I counted on Politico‘s front page earlier today), but which will soon roil conservative evangelical circles, Franklin Graham piggy-backed onto the IRS “scandal” involving 501(c)(4) organizations by complaining directly to the President that the Bill Graham Evangelistic Association and an adjunct group, Samaritan’s Purse, had also been “targeted” by the IRS. In question was a “review” recently conducted by the IRS of the two organizations’ activities during tax year 2010.

Graham’s organizations are not 501(c)(4)s; nor were they applying for tax-exempt status in the year in question. They are 501(c)(3) “charitable organizations,” which means not only do they not have to pay taxes or disclose donors, but contributions to them are tax-exempt, which is a huge difference representing a massive tax subsidy aimed at sheltering religious organizations and charities.

So the IRS has always been very interested in making sure that groups–church-related or not–benefitting from (c)(3) status don’t get involved in electoral politics, and the rules governing them are much stricter than for (c)(4)s. After Graham very conspicuously used his father’s legacy organizations to heavily support a anti-gay-marriage ballot initiative in North Carolina last year, it would have probably been a dereliction of duty for the IRS not to take a closer look, which is apparently all the agency did.

I think nearly all of us agree the IRS selective scrutiny of groups with words like “tea party” in their titles who were part of a massive expansion of (c)(4) applications in and after 2010 was inappropriate (though probably not as menacing as we’ve been led to believe). But investigation and remedial action on this issue should not get turned into some effort to give the huge universe of 501(c)(3)s, including religious organizations, a blank check for political activities. But that’s precisely what we can expect the Christian Right, of which Franklin Graham is a leading member, to do, exploiting a camel’s nose under the tent.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.