The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science is going to expose America’s "religio-industrial complex," and you can help.
The "religio-industrial complex" is a play on President Dwight D. Eisenhower's 1961 warning about the "military-industrial complex" that threatened American democracy. In the "religio-industrial" complex, the “rich and religious” who enjoy special tax perks and privilege in the United States prey on the vulnerable and have a powerful voice in Congress and in state legislatures. They push for theocratic laws motivated by self interest, not the well-being of society.
Sean Faircloth is the Foundation’s Director of Strategy & Policy. A successful attorney, Faircloth served five terms in the Maine Legislature, where he served on the Judiciary and Appropriations Committees and in his last term, was elected Majority Whip by his colleagues. Faircloth authored Attack of the Theocrats! How the Religious Right Harms Us All- —and What We Can Do About It, that provides a lively history and discussion about the influence of the Christian right.
He has issued a call to action and in a recent speech, outlined some key points associated with the religio-industrial complex, transcribed and commented on in this article.
At The Amazing Meeting (TEM)’s 2012 conference in Las Vegas (embedded below), Faircloth recalled the abuses of the “Prayboy” housing on C-Street , where at least one "pro family" member of Congress is alleged to have had an extramarital affair. C-Street houses a secretive, bipartisan, evangelical group of lawmakers known as “the Fellowship” that seeks to advance its religious ideology in the United States and abroad. In his extensive research, author Jeff Sharlott exposed the C-Street “Family” and has recently published, C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy. The Family is just one pixel in a larger picture.
The Parsonage Exemption.
While not all members of the religio-industrial complex enjoy the special perks of the Family at C-Street, on a nationwide level, they enjoy special privileges and tax exemptions that no other American receives.
“Federal law permits religious organizations to give housing allowances to ministers. It’s called the parsonage exemption,” Faircloth explained (see video embedded below). “Now, I want you to think for a minute about how much of your income goes to your housing costs. I mean, just think of some of the things on the list – the down payments, the mortgage principal, the interest, the fees, real estate taxes, the list goes on and frankly, that’s not all, folks. It continues – repairs, utilities, furnishings, appliances – like pool tables, I’m serious – telephone, television, Internet. All of these costs are provided by the church and not counted by law by the ministers as part of their income. And it gets better. Even though the money provided by the church for minister housing is exempt from income tax, ministers are still permitted to deduct from their income taxes the mortgage interest and the real estate taxes. Now that is some sweet double dip and this is the power of what I call the religio-industrial complex.”
Faircloth illustrated the abuse of these parsonage exemptions by clergy who enjoy millionaire lifestyles.
"Eight so-called ministers got housing allowances at Robert Schuller's Crystal Cathedral. Now three of these received housing allowances of $100,000 plus a year and three happened to be relatives of Reverend Schuller. Robert Schuller’s daughter bought a house now valued at $2.29 million."
The "prosperity gospel" fuels the lives of wealthy pastors. The prosperity gospel generally teaches that faith, positive speech, and donations to Christian ministries will always increase one's material wealth. "If you’re familiar with the prosperity gospel, it teaches us that God rewards those who pray for houses, or for new cars or – and I’m not making this up, Joel Osteen said this – good restaurant seats. That’s effective prayer," Faircloth joked.
"Joyce Meyer, America’s top woman minister, lives the prosperity gospel full out, I’ll tell you. Her ministry brings in over $100 million annually and of her money, she says 'There’s no need for us to apologize for being blessed.' And Meyer asked, 'Is there no reward for anybody who’s doing what I am doing?' Luckily, God has provided a very specific answer to that question. One part of that answer is a multimillion dollar private jet because flying commercial is so, to quote Meyer, uncomfortable today. Meyer got bad publicity when it was found out that she had a $900,000 a year income. But her accountant finagled things so that she actually makes more money now but has a lower official salary, which is much better for media consumption. And Meyer says that when people give to her ministry, the money will – at some unspecified later date – 'come back to them many times over.' Meyer grabs their cash now and assures the faithful that God will reimburse them. Poor Bernie Madoff is in jail. Had Madoff only said that God would return on investment, he’d have his own television show now."
Tax exemptions for religious organizations are based on the alleged charitable good that they do for their communities. "Meyer’s TV commercials invest millions of dollars to praise Joyce Meyers for her ministry’s foreign aid. She refers to herself in the royal third person, and Meyers says, 'She has helped so many people.' But one investigation in fact found that only about $14 million annually is spent on humanitarian direct aid, and of that $14 million, much of that is actually spent on proselytizing and that $14 million is out of more than $100 million," Faircloth argues.
"Across the board, religious organizations spend far less money on direct charitable aid than their secular non-profit counterparts. “This figure is not anomalous. It is typical," Faircloth says. "One study showed that only 29 percent of money given to churches directly addresses real world charitable needs. For basis of comparison, say the Red Cross, the figure is approximately 91 percent. So, nonetheless, taxpayers subsidize Joyce Meyer’s jet in the sense that the contributions to her ministries are tax deductible despite unethical practices that would result in revocation of tax deductibility if it were a secular non-profit."
"Meanwhile, many far less famous ministers benefit from this parsonage exemption as they claw their way toward the Joyce Meyer level of wealth. Now, they may not have a type of a home like Joyce Meyer’s 'humble cottage' … but hundreds and hundreds of mega-ministers live extravagant lives on your dime by using this parsonage exemption," he added.
Lives of the Rich and Religious.
The biblical Jesus who Christians claim to model their lives after lived a humble life, is quoted in John 8:50 as saying "I seek not mine own glory." This is not the case with the proponents of the prosperity gospel, as Faircloth explained.
"Now sometimes pastors, as they get extremely wealthy and famous, they forgo the parsonage exemption but don’t mention that they used it for decades prior to that and their families do in these multi-generational situations. One such example is Joel Osteen. Joel Osteen is the pastor of the largest congregation in America, in Houston. And Osteen, as you may know, is famous for crying during his sermons and he has a lot to cry about. Like Joyce Meyer, Joel Osteen and his co-pastor wife Victoria, have trouble with airlines."
Using sarcasm and humor, Faircloth told of the Osteens’ experience on a commercial flight.
"The Osteens made the mistake of slumming it, really, and without a private jet they were so humble, Christlike one might say, as to fly first class to Vale for a ski trip. And Victoria, rather tragically, was aghast to find – and I am not making this up – according to court records, that there was a stain about the size of a quarter on her first class armrest. And you can imagine how she felt. To paraphrase Lady MacBeth, 'Out damned spot!' And when the flight attendant did not respond immediately to Queen Victoria’s screeching command for spot relief, Victoria did the only reasonable thing – she stormed the cockpit, demanding justice. And really, who can blame her, she was flying first class, after all. However, even first class passengers must obey FAA regulations and those ungrateful bureaucrats imposed a $3,000 fine on Victoria. That’s something like $20 to you and me. Meanwhile, the flight attendant, smelling a little prosperity gospel of her own, brought suit. Witnesses described Victoria’s behavior as that of a ‘combative diva.’ Still, the jury ruled in Victoria’s favor. The FAA had already punished her cockpit tantrum and Victoria had only yelled at the flight attendant, she hadn’t hit her. So naturally though, the Osteens devoted their next sermon to the sufferings that they had experienced. Joel said, 'It’s not just a victory for us. It’s a victory for God’s kingdom.' And then Victoria came on stage, literally jumping up and down, declaring, 'I place a banner of victory over my head.' And Joel said, 'God is against those who are against us.'"
Religious Perks in the United States Tax System.
Faircloth outlined three ways that churches receive special tax consideration in the United States:
- Unlike secular non-profits, churches don’t have to file 990s, allowing very secretive finances and making it difficult to even find out whether there are financial improprieties in these organizations.
- Unlike individuals, for profit businesses and secular non-profits, only a high-ranking IRS official can authorize an audit of a religious organization.
- Church pastors can claim the parsonage exemption.
The Rise of the Mega-Church and Its Impact on Culture.
Mega-churches, defined as having a sustained membership of 2,000 or more people, have seen unprecedented growth since the 1970s. "The growth of mega-churches in the United States is a fundamental change in American society," he said. "In 1970, there were fewer than 100 mega-churches in the United States. Now, there are hundreds upon hundreds of these churches."
The Hartford Institute for Religion Research maintains an online database of mega-churches in the United States and throughout the world. It points out that in the U.S., there are over 1,200 Christian Protestant mega-churches – and that does not count other denominations. The Hartford Institute notes, "… there are significant numbers of megachurches throughout the world, especially in Korea, Brazil, and several African countries, although no exact count exists for this worldwide phenomenon. The largest megachurch in America averages 35,000 in attendance; however, several churches in Korea claim over 250,000 attenders. Although very large congregations have existed throughout Christian history, there has been a rapid proliferation of churches with massive attendance since the decade of the 1970's. As such, some researchers suggest that this church form is a unique collective response to distinctive cultural shifts and changes in societal patterns throughout the industrialized, urban and suburban areas of the world. While size is the most immediately apparent characteristic of these congregations, the Protestant megachurches in the United States generally share many other traits. Virtually all these megachurches have a conservative theology, even those within mainline denominations. A large number are nondenominational but the majority are affiliated with a denomination."
Faircloth suggests that corporations seize on the opportunity to push their agenda through mega-church pastors. "People who understand this include executives at Exxon Corporation. They sure know this when they help fund the organizations that spur climate change denial among the religious. I suspect there’s many an atheist corporate executive who sees quite a beneficial alliance with fundamentalism that has already changed and continues to change the nature of American society, along with the helping hand of the C-Street type of politicians that I describe in my book. There’s usually multiple ministers in each mega-church, each one eligible for this parsonage exemption. It is a driving force in their motivation."
A Call to Investigate the Mega-Churches.
"Today, I am announcing that the Richard Dawkins Foundation U.S. is starting a project to expose the religio-industrial complex through a professional documentary that reveals both the human injustices caused by fundamentalism in law but also the lifestyles of the rich and religious," Faircloth revealed. "And you can help. With a little bit of investigating of public records and Google maps, you can in your state document what is happening and show that this is a pervasive problem and not an anomaly. And don’t forget the homes of the children and the siblings who are called by God to get a really sweet tax exemption."
The Harm Inflicted by the Prosperity Gospel and Mega-Churches.
Faircloth referred to Kevin Phillips’ work, published in Bad Money: Reckless Finance, Failed Politics, and the Global Crisis of American Capitalism. “You know, Kevin Phillips who is a true fiscally conservative Republican, has documented how the prosperity gospel enriches the ministers but detrimentally affects millions of average people who follow the bogus prosperity gospel delusional thinking and assume mortgages that they cannot afford, and had a real effect on the housing crisis. Just as intelligent design is creationism tarted up in a party dress, the prosperity gospel is the descendent of The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale, a close friend of Nixon and Billy Graham. Peale’s philosophy of so-called positive thinking was that rather than working with your fellow citizens to solve problems, the average person should submissively change their attitude about problems rather than be assertive or collaborative. And after all, the little people, they are promised a reward – later. This ruse sounds blatantly ridiculous, but the religio-industrial complex has only become more bold."
Faircloth also brought up the "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" movement spearheaded by Alliance Defending Freedom (formerly the Alliance Defense Fund). "Recently, ministers have organized to openly defy the IRS prohibition on endorsement from the pulpit and the Obama administration has taken no action whatsoever. So it falls to us, to secular Americans, to become activist." In the latest missive from Erik Stanley of Alliance Defending Freedom, Stanley complained that churches were under "a climate of intimidation, censorship and fear" because of the 1954 Johnson Amendment that prohibits 501(c)(3) organizations, which includes charities and churches, from engaging in any political campaign activity. Oklahoma pastor Paul Blair, one of the "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" participants, declared in 2010, "We need another generation of God fearing, Bible thumping patriot pastors. We need a revival in America."
Nobel Prize Winners and American Secular Influence.
Secular people who did or do not embrace the Christian "revival in America" brought about by Bible-thumping pastors have made life for humanity safer and more enjoyable; yet, they were humble.
Faircloth referred to two people who received double Nobel prizes – Madam Marie Curie, the French-Polish physicist and chemist, famous for her pioneering research on radioactivity and American Linus Pauling, one of the most influential chemists in history who was among the first scientists to work in the fields of quantum chemistry and molecular biology.
Describing Madam Marie Curie, Faircloth said, "She was not a religious person, but Curie believed strongly that people 'share a general responsibility for all humanity.' Einstein said that Curie was never seduced by her fame. And though her research led to saving many lives, Curie never felt worthy of the queenly attention that a Victoria Osteen demands. Curie said, 'I was taught that the way of progress is neither swift nor easy.' Praying for prosperity was not enough. Curie, the first woman ever awarded a PhD in all of Europe said, 'I never see what has been done. I only see what remains to be done.' She said, 'Science has great beauty. A scientist in the laboratory is not only a technician, but as a child, placed before a natural phenomenon which impress like a fairy tale.' Curie, unlike the bogus prosperity gospel, sought to improve our shared world, not pretend the world is different from what evidence tells us it is."
Faircloth notes a survey of NAS scientists found 79 percent were atheist, and that does not mean that they have a cold worldview. Citing the "Golden Rule," Faircloth quoted Pauling as saying, "Do onto others 20 percent better than you’d expect them to do unto you to correct for subjective error." Research based on three large, systemic studies published in Live Science this year appears to confirm Faircloth’s analysis of the non-believers’ worldview. Researchers found that atheists, agnostics and people who are not very religious tended to be more compassionate and empathetic than their strongly religious counterparts.
Religious conservatives, like those writing at Human Events, disagree, viewing atheists and atheist scientists in particular as liars having a contemptible worldview. "Over the last 50 years, the NAS hierarchy has become one of the most poisonous organizations in America, a nest of atheists who base their pseudo-scientific dogma on the arbitrary rejection of God, and not upon empirical evidence and the scientific method," thundered writer J. Johnson, Jr., in 2010. "The corrupt mindset that rules the field of human origins is the same corrupt mindset that rules the field of climatology. Within the atheists’ nest that rules the NAS, empirical evidence is irrelevant. In both fields, their ‘findings’ will continue to bolster their atheist religion and their self-interest, not the interests of true science, or of the American people. Isn’t it about time we stirred up that atheists’ nest?"
"Pauling’s analysis of genetic molecular mutations can save lives for generations to come," Faircloth said. "Pauling's work to ban nuclear testing, earned him his second Nobel, for peace. Contrastingly, President Bush pointed to the Book of Revelation regarding his decision to invade Iraq. This religio-industrial complex warmongering is not what we see from double Nobel winners. Pauling’s science and straight talk is characteristically American."
Thomas Edison, who brought us “the phonograph, the light bulb, the movie camera, the electric power plant” enjoyed his work. Faircloth pointed out that Edison once said, "I cannot believe in the immortality of the soul. No, all this talk of an existence for us beyond the grave is wrong … religion is all bunk. And a scientist who preceded Edison was Ben Franklin, who coined the electrical terms positive and negative, electric motor and electrical battery," Faircloth added. "Franklin said, 'I have found Christian dogma unintelligible. Early in life, I absented myself from Christian assemblies.'"
The secular tradition is a noble one, Faircloth said. "Franklin, Edison, Pauling all spoke for a deep current in American thought that takes great joy in learning about our world as it is, and working with others to improve it. Franklin was also a politician and he was proud of it. His religious skepticism was almost as strong as that of Jefferson. These founders were not alone in their secular approach. Madison and later on, Lincoln and Kennedy, stood out for their advocacy of science, technology, and the separation of church and state. The belief that we work with our fellow human beings and not for some deity is strong among skeptic entrepreneurs like Soros, Buffett, Gates, and Zuckerberg."
The March Toward Theocracy.
People can pick and chose on both sides of the issue. No one can deny that both atheists and theists have made life-enhancing contributions in the United States. The problem, however, is an apparent push in American government for theocracy.
"The hard reality is that America’s political life is no longer dominated by the likes of Franklin and Jefferson and Kennedy," Faircloth said. "Though the Zuckerberg generation gives us hope, the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science U.S. is so necessary because there is such a disparity between the rationalism on the rise in our youth and the theocracy that is on the rise in our politics. And make no mistake, regardless of what happens in this presidential election, the vast majority of theocratic politicians who hold seats in legislatures and Congress will still be there after November. With the help of these theocratic Congressmen who I describe in my book, a preacher lives an elite, luxurious lifestyle subsidized by special tax exemptions offered only to them and required nowhere in our Constitution. Recent politicians have simply quivered before the religious right so we are thus obligated to organize and to be bold."
The Richard Dawkins Foundation Call to Action.
The Richard Dawkins Foundation is working to create a secular world and everyone can help.
Many on the religious right claim that secularism destroys religious liberty. It does not. A secular society is explained by Anne Marie Waters at the National Secular Society:
Let's begin with what secularism is not – it is not a threat to religious freedom, in fact the opposite is true. The aim of secularism, and the National Secular Society, is to protect fundamental human rights, including the right to religious freedom, by ensuring that we are governed by a state that is neutral on matters of religious faith and that religion remains a matter for the private sphere. This does not mean that there should be no churches or synagogues or mosques, nor that they should be excluded from putting forward their political views, it simply means that those who do not believe in a particular faith are not obliged to do so, and are not obliged to follow the dictates of that faith. This is as important for people of faith as it is for non-believers. Christians might ask themselves if they would rather live in a secular state where no religion dictates the laws, or whether they would like to live in a state in which Islam or Hinduism or Judaism is our legislator.
The only thing that prevents one religion from dominating another is secularism. The evidence for this is strong. If you look at countries around the world which are ruled by religion, freedom of belief does not exist or is barely worthy of the name. In Saudi Arabia, an Islamic state, Christianity and all other religions are banned and the practice of them carries a sentence of execution no less. In the United States, religious freedom is enshrined in the constitution and protects religious minorities from legal attack. I have no doubt that some right-wing commentators there would happily hinder the practice or protection of harmless aspects of Islam, but religious freedom protects Muslims from such ideas becoming law. Secularism therefore protects the rights of religious minorities from the tyranny of the majority.
The Secular Coalition for America has been battling the false notion of "religious liberty," writing in the context of religious outrage over the birth control mandate in health care reform that, "While every American is entitled to their personal religious beliefs and practices, they do not have the right to impose it on others, including employees, or expect privileging from the government. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and opponents of the Health of Human Services rule on contraceptive care are pushing a false definition of religious freedom. This is part of a larger attack on the separation of religion and government, being waged at the state and federal levels via several avenues. The USCCB is asking the government to privilege its particular brand of religion over others — and over non-religion– and the worst part is that they are doing it under a smoke screen of religious persecution. True religious freedom allows for individuals to make their own decisions, not have the religious beliefs of their employer forced upon them."
In Faircloth’s speech, Innovating for a Secular World, the Richard Dawkins Foundation U.S.’s efforts for a secular world are outlined. However, he asks for help in two areas right now.
"First, help the Dawkins Foundation create our documentary expose on the religious right by exposing the tax subsidized lifestyles of the rich and religious in your state. Email me at *omitted.* (Editor's Note – Watch the video below for the link — we decided not to publish the email address to reduce spam and potential hate email.) And second, help create statewide secular policy focused organizations. We can all do this. All the organizations can do this as a team. I’ll come to your community, I’ll do a grassroots training and work with you. Our tax code, our nation’s laws today, encourage the shiny, shyster charlatans when our heritage really is Franklin's boundless curiosity, Edison's endless tinkering, Pauling's meticulous analysis. […] Great things are never done by one person. They are done by a team of people."
Anyone who follows religion and politics is aware of the type of Christian nationalism being espoused by far right politicians who seek to impose a “biblical worldview” on America through legislation. The People for the American Way’s Right Wing Watch, The Richard Dawkins Foundation, Secular News Daily, Al Stefanelli’s United Atheist Front, Talk2Action and this site are just a handful of resources that document on a daily basis the encroachment of the religious right in American politics. The Christian right has been working diligently to "mobilize the vote" through an effort called "Champion the Vote" in order to promote politicians and issues that reflect their "biblical worldview" which can be disastrous domestically and internationally (see the Champion the Vote link directly above for an overview of what is promoted). Billionaire evangelist Kenneth Copeland, is one of several prominent right wing preachers who is behind the "Champion the Vote" campaign. He recently proclaimed that the United States was founded "for the specific purpose to praise and worship God." Meanwhile, the American Family Association's president claimed to the organization's multitude of followers this week that the nation was created "for the purpose of advancing the gospel of Jesus Christ."
"Americans today face a choice," Faircloth warns. "America can clog its intellectual arteries with the greasy words of hucksters out to pick vulnerable pockets with the help of the IRS, thus enriching the religio-industrial complex or we together can inspire the secular movement to be a joyous and innovative team devoted to the interests of our fellow citizens. Our organized efforts in exposing the shysters and rewarding the innovators is of great historic importance. The world is faced with a stark choice between a dark age of fundamentalism or the light of reason. The greater our devotion, the greater our commitment to the greatest cause in all of human history, the cause of the enlightenment, will result in our greatest gift to future generations. Let us together document the unvarnished truth about the injustices of fundamentalism in America today and together, we will create a more compassionate and honorable world."