Category Archives: religious groups

The Clergyman’s Aura

The Reverend Al Sharpton preached his first sermon at the age of four.  But he was not formally ordained a clergyman until much later, when he was nine.  The alleged rabbinic ordination of the “spiritually progressive”  Michael Lerner of California (like our new President, thrice married) cannot be verified at all.   Moreover, a few minutes spent on Google will present anyone so minded with many opportunities for achieving rapid clerical ordination, Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, or Other,  with little effort and at little or no cost.  On the other hand, the more demanding New York based  Rabbinical Seminary International” (under the same management as the “All Faiths Seminary International”) does require three long days of in-house training and a fee of $5000 for full, presumably legal ordination as rabbi.

Such aberrations within the clerical calling are not the norm for the whole profession.  But they point to more general problems.  First, not everyone can tell the impostor from the real thing.  Second, as is true in the medical profession, the most harmful of the charlatans often carry legitimate credentials.  And third, the line between the specious and the genuine is not always easily ascertainable.

The basic, insurmountable problem with the clerical profession lies in its borderless area of alleged competence.  True, the major religions all have a body of scripture and a further body of ritual that its clergy is expected to master.  But this core of expected competence is just the beginning.  In and by themselves these core subjects may qualify a person as an expert, perhaps a scholar of religion.  Ordination as clergy, on the other hand, involves something much larger, viz. the assumption of a spiritual aura which is never explicitly delimited.

In Roman Catholicism, this aura comes closest to being precisely defined.  A Catholic priest is said to have such supernatural powers as the forgiveness of sin and the  power to change bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. In other religions the clerical aura is more implied than expressed, but my Conservative Jewish denomination holds that a local rabbi, alone, has the power of mara d’atra, the power to decide on Jewish law in his locality.

More broadly, the aura of the clergy is generally understood to involve overall wisdom and righteousness.

Wisdom:  there seems to be an expectation that a clergyman’s advice is somehow superior to that of a random acquaintance.  Clergymen are known to dispense advice on how to lead better lives in their sermons and in private conversation, even though there is nothing in the training or background of a clergyman that would lead us to assume that, qua clergyman, his wisdom is more reliable than, say, your mother’s.  Often the clerical advice is wildly inappropriate to anyone with specialized experience.  I remember an occasion some years ago when I was present at a rabbi’s exhortation to his flock to be more productive in their professional lives.  No doubt aware of the fact that there were some academics in his audience, the rabbi opined that one should work on and complete “that paper you are working on.”  I noticed a junior professor who gave a knowing smile.  How apt, how true, how helpful, she seemed to be saying to herself.  But to anyone with some experience in academia, the urge to publish, while perhaps helpful in furthering a career, is more often than not an urge to perpetuate intellectual malfunction.  A more thoughtful advice would have been to study more, to do better research, and to refrain from publishing until you have something important to say.  In short, the rabbi’s advice was conventional, careerist, and basically unethical.

Clergymen are also presumed by those who respect them to lead exemplary lives.  The ones I have encountered have as many failed marriages, narcissistic behavior, and inadequate people skills as anyone else.  And yet we are expected to show them more deference than we show the waiter in a restaurant.  Why ?

Righteousness:  here I address myself particularly to the do-gooders of Reform and Conservative Judaism, but also to the liberal Protestant groups, the Unitarians, the Universalists, the (liberal) Presbyterians, etc., although conservative groups have their own forms of such sanctimony.

The job descriptions for rabbis that I have found on the websites of the Conservative and Reform Jewish seminaries all include references to a rabbi’s obligation to advocate tikkun olam, i.e. healing of the world;  to work for social justice;  to be, in short, a political and social activist.  But the curricula of these schools do not include any in-depth study of social or economic problems, and certainly no technical tools — for instance social statistics — to analyze the social problems of the day.  In other words, these clergymen are required to be dilettantes.  Go ahead, they are told, you must ceaselessly opine on social issues, but never, ever, must you learn anything about, say, multivariate analysis.  I have sat through many an ignorant discourse by clergy, citing mangled statistics and misinterpreted bits of social data, all delivered in tones of officious self-righteousness.  Does this kind of social discourse serve the cause of social betterment ?  Or rather, as I would argue, the very opposite ?

We are left with the problem of aura.  By virtue of his anointment or ordination, a clergyman is often presumed to have powers of intellect and character that he obviously does not possess. Of course we also encounter a certain ambivalence.  Perhaps for the very reason of the presumed aura, there is sometimes a tendency to be hypercritical of clergy.  The minister or priest or rabbi when perceived to fall short  may be judged more harshly than would someone not expected to have the aura.

Whatever the outcome, it seems to me that the clerical aura that comes with ordination, originating as it did in an earlier era, causes misapprehensions, false expectations, and foolishly sanctimonious social action.  At least outside of the Catholic Church, we would be better off without the institution of ordination.  Protestant and Jewish congregations could hire religious professionals on the basis of demonstrated knowledge and skills, without any presumption of extraordinary wisdom or righteousness.  Insofar as there may be a need for “spiritual” leadership beyond professional skill, this would have to be demonstrated in each case by action and behavior and examined critically and skeptically,  rather than deduced from pieces of paper issued by a seminary.

The Non-Accountability of Religious Groups

No, it is probably not true that religious groups in this country are robbing us blind. But we cannot be sure, because, inexplicably, our laws have loopholes that prevent the government from effectively checking on the finances of churches, synagogues, and mosques, on how these groups manage or mismanage the very considerable public funds with which they are entrusted by way of tax exemptions and tax deductibility of donations.

Does it ever happen, for example, that a religious group will offer a receipt for a donation for a payment which was not in fact a voluntary contribution but rather a payment for some sort of service, say a church-catered wedding or individual religious tutoring ? Issuing a donation-receipt under such circumstances would be illegal but under current auditing rules of the IRS and state agencies, it would be almost impossible to detect.

I have outlined the contours of the problem in the first part of a law review article entitled “When the Constitution Fails on Church and State: Two Case Studies,” 6 Rutgers Journal of Law and Religion, 1.2 (2005). Here I reproduce Sections 5-15 of this article. I have omitted the numerous footnotes; they contain supporting detail and and can be consulted by clicking on the link shown above.


[5] The United States in recent years have seen well-publicized scandals in the
Catholic Church, primarily concerning sex, but also involving concomitant financial
irregularities. The public discussion surrounding this matter has not touched upon the fact the Catholic Church, like all other religious groups, is given very unusual immunity from financial reporting to the government and from most auditing by the government.

[6] The federal religious immunities in the IRC are found in Sections
508(a)(c)(1)(a), 6033, and 7611, and have a long history, going back at least to the
beginning of the twentieth century. They are noteworthy because they benefit religious groups and not other non-profit entities (except by way of certain de minimis provisions).

[7] Section 508 immunity provides that new religious groups (and small secular
groups that can qualify under a de minimis rule) need not file an application to qualify for tax exemption. Most non-profit groups must file a Form 1023 to obtain recognition as a tax-exempt entity. This form asks searching questions about the group’s finances angovernance. But churches and synagogues need not file; they are considered tax exempt on their own say-so. This is a very significant exemption from accountability.

[8] However, Form 1023 may be filed by churches on a voluntary basis. A
church that takes this route will be asked, in addition to the questions that are applicable to all non-profits, a special group of questions contained in “Schedule A”, which are designed to distinguish bona fide churches from illegal schemes.16 The logic, if any, of Schedule A is not obvious. If a group considers itself a church or synagogue it need not file such information unless it decides to do so voluntarily, in which case it will have its bona fides questioned; those declining the voluntary filing have their bona fides assumed.

[9] Nor are the advantages of filing [to a church] obvious. A publication by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (the Reform movement) recommends voluntary filing, partly because it results in a listing by the IRS’s Publication 78. Such listing does confer more visibility to a group, and perhaps enhances its credibility among prospective donors, but does not enhance a church’s tax status or any other legal prerogative. Many churches and synagogues are listed in this mammoth book but many are not. There does not seem to be an easy way to estimate the extent of this voluntary compliance.

[10] The Section 6033 and 7611 exemptions free churches from the periodic
financial reporting that is required of other non-profit groups. These exemptions
benefit “churches, their integrated auxiliaries, and conventions and associations of
churches” (as well as secular groups with annual gross receipts of less than $5000) and are thus more narrowly drawn than certain other definitions of “religion.” Obviously, a mosque and a synagogue is a “church” for this purpose, but certain other church-related groups are not.

[11] The § 6033 exemption is particularly significant and far-reaching because it
affects not only the targeted groups but also the public at large. At issue is the famous IRS Form 990, which for all other non-profit groups affords a revealing and very accessible picture of how non-profit groups manage their money. Secular non-profit groups are required to file this form annually, but churches are not. Most states require that the secular groups operating within their borders also file a copy of the 990 with the state government. Religious groups, however, are generally exempt from these state filings.

[12] The philosophy behind Form 990 is as follows: in return for the many
privileges that the government bestows on non-profit organizations — income tax
exemption, exemption from property taxes, and tax deductibility of donations, the
government asks for the disclosure of financial information, akin to, but much less
extensive than the information required of publicly owned corporations. Since the
various tax privileges of these non-profit groups may be considered tax expenditures by government on all levels, non-profit groups may be said to receive considerable public funds and should be held accountable for such funds.

[13] The Form 990 filings of all the major non-profit organizations are now widely
available in various publications and on the Internet. They form the basis for ratings given to nonprofit groups by various “watchdog” groups who are interested in how efficiently the charities and other nonprofit groups are managed. The information required on Form 990 includes total receipts, sources of such receipts, expenditures by type and recipient, salaries of top officials, and information on self-dealing operations among board and staff members. The IRC provides penalties for self-dealing, for example a property sold by a board member to the organization at an inflated price. Churches do not have to file such information. Consequently, it is possible that the inappropriate expenditures surrounding the sex scandal in the Catholic Church could not have been as easily kept secret if the Church had been required annually to file Form 990.

[14] The Form 990 disclosure of salaries has attracted particular attention in a
report published in the Chronicle of Philanthropy. This kind of publicity is likely to
have a deterrent effect on excessive salaries. Again, this public disclosure is not required of religious bodies. In addition, the § 7611 exemption frees churches from routine auditing by the IRS. The Service can do audits, but only for cause, and then only with restrictions that do not apply to secular groups.

[15] Taken together, these Code exemptions create the impression that Congress
regards religious folk as more trustworthy than non-religious folk and less in need of
accountability. As we shall see below, most of the states have followed these Federal
exemptions from accountability. Concerning the state exemptions, Catherine Knight

[a] church officer who dips into the collection plate may be
held accountable on Judgment Day, but what about a
reckoning in this life? . . . The ability of the attorneys
general of the various states or of church members to
regulate the fiscal decisions of the church’s corporate
directors or officers is mired in statutory limitations and
constitutional questions. As a result, religious corporations
are largely self-regulated.

Was Congress right to assume that, when acting under color of church, man’s probity is beyond question? …

While, as we have seen, IRS approval is not needed to qualify a religious group for 501(c)(3) status, obtaining such approval seems ludicrously simple. Professor Rob Reich of Stanford has issued a report on the topic: “Anything Goes.” The report has an appendix listing 60 “most eccentric” groups that have managed to obtain IRS approval, for instance groups who impersonate nuns.