Letter from the Editor

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Grassley against the mega-ministers

By now, Chuck Grassley isn't an Iowan - he's Iowa.

He's won what - three, four hundred straight elections? You have a better chance of getting hit by lightning while scratching off the winning Powerball ticket and simultaneously getting french kissed by the Queen of England than you do of defeating C-Grass at the ballot box.

He's been in Washington for more than 30 years now, but Chuck Grassley still introduces himself as "a farmer."

He isn't one of those politicians who are just a post office box in his home state, while he really kicks it in the Bahamas, either. Grassley makes a point of trying to visit every one of Iowa's counties every year - not just election year.

His approval rating in Iowa is near 75 percent at a time when Congress in general and Republicans in particular face pretty low confidence marks. He isn't taking suspect junkets or raking in the dough from trumped-up corporate "jobs", as far as I can see. He seems to conduct himself in plain Iowan style.

Grassley is the rarity in the Washington, a guy who hasn't gone Washngton on us. He's not much of a grandstander. He's still got the Iowa work ethic - according to GovTrackUS website, he has not missed a single vote of Congress since they started keeping track in January of '97 - that's about 3,760 straight votes - a performance that would make Lou Gehrig blush.

Like a majority of Iowans, there basically hasn't been a day in my lifetime that Chuck Grassley was not in elected office.

I haven't always agreed with the man, but I have always respected him as a man of honor and principle.

It's laughable that some have decided to question Grassley's Christianity now that he is taking on the wealthy TV evangelists.

If the guy dares to question powerful media ministers, or so the story goes, he can't be a real Christian.

Having a little trouble picturing old Chuck as the antichrist? Yeah, me too.

Last I knew, the man was a Baptist in good standing, a no nonsense denomenation, that. He's also said to be a member of The Family, the group that organizes the National Prayer Breakfasts, among other religious-based projects.

Grassley has made a career out of afflicting the comfortable, From the infamous "$400 hammer" days of pounding on the Pentagon for silly spending, to whipping spend-happy Smithsonian execs, to uncovering that more than a billion dollars of farm subsidies were paid out in the name of deceased people - the dude has called a lot of powerful people onto the carpet and emerged none the worse for wear.

Going after televangelists is an even stickier matter. The religious right is vital to the success of his own party. And there is this tiny little doctrince known as "separation of church and state," where many are rightly questioning Grassley's right to demand financial records from six particular ministries.

Grassley says his beef isn't with their religious messages, but wanting to make sure they aren't abusing their government-provided tax-exempt status as a dodge to make themselves rich.

What? A televangelist fleecing the flock? Imagine that.

Grassley cites $23,0000 commodes, luxurious private jets and Rolls Royce rides that seem a bit farflung from the days of ministry via donkey-back.

By Iowa thinking, at any rate, there need not be a long controversy here.

A minister shouldn't have much to hide. They could satisfy the alpha dog of whistle-blowing by simply releasing their financial records not to Congress, but directly to their own donors, as they should. I don't know a church in Storm Lake that doesn't regularly show their financial data to its congregation. What's to hide?

I do wonder a bit about Grassley's choice of six targets. They are all Pentacostals. And there are some awfully heavy hitters in the world of TV religion that he isn't questioning - Pat Robertson and the Oral Roberts family, for example, are overlooked.

If we're going to look deeper into the tax-exemption policies, we probably should look at everyone.

And of course, there is the "glass houses" thing. Grassley, like most senators, apparently has a few million bucks of his own. Congress has had its share of little-known financial perks, including limo service available at taxpayer expense to the top-ranking members of each house, and more than a few rogues - more than 15 members were convicted of fraud, tax evasion, campaign finance cheating, racketeering, conspiracy and extortion-type crimes from 1992-99 alone, the National Taxpayers Union reports.

It is also true that it is not fair to lump all TV evangelists together. Some have used their notoriety and fundraising ability to help people all around the world; others have essentially "sold" prayers in exchange for generous donations.

There is no denying the Billy Graham has touched millions; there is also no denying that a few others have used ministries to turbo-fund their own for-profit corporations.

Grassley's critics are dead right to recite that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."

It's also true that no one has the right to use religion to break the law in compiling outrageous personal fortune and luxury while not paying their fair share of tax on it.

As much as we respect the separation of church and state, come on, we're nosy - we'd like to know the truth, wouldn't we?

The critics will have to excuse Citizen Grassely on this one, I fear. It's in his blood.

Those Lear jet-flying, Rolls-riding, commode-buying, mansion-living, auditorium-building, Tammy-Faye-dressing, corporate-preaching lifestyles don't quite jibe with the Iowa psyche.

They might as well give up the goods now. Chuck will wear them down, protests or not. It's an Iowa thing.