"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 30 January 2001. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Will Work For Love Gifts, Tips


As America renews its love affair with authoritarian old men and the bloodless transfer of power ripples to the extreme edges of the centrist puddle, certain things are becoming clear. We may not have fundraising monks and fussy television producers to kick around anymore, but conservative religious leaders may soon find that Jesus has answered their prayers for increased air time, exposure, and respect.

Take minister Greg Dixon, described upon a recent return home from Washington D.C. as a man seeking peaceful resolution to a long-simmering conflict between his Indianapolis Baptist Temple and the Internal Revenue Service. No matter that the entire imbroglio is one of the Temple's own conscious making, or that tax officials have pursued the matter with a glacially-paced reserve that would shame the egg-sucking mammals of the last dinosaur age — Pastor Dixon is on a mission of peace.

At issue is $6 million in social security taxes, interest, and penalties the IRS claims the church owes. Who picked a fight with whom has fueled a significant portion of the dialogue to date, although the facts are pretty clear. In 1983, the Temple unincorporated itself as a non-profit religious organization, relinquishing its tax-exempt status but claiming its monies were untaxable. Their logic was that since its various paid functionaries were now independent ministers who received "love gifts" instead of salaries, the Temple should no longer be obligated to pay social security or payroll taxes.

It took the IRS until 1994 to codify its spit-take, filing liens and starting a back-and-forth series of legal skirmishes over payment, including the seizure of some church land in 1996. In 1999, the IRS won in court. Despite nearby public protests by church members and sympathizers, in November the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago upheld the decision, citing any number of similar cases by which people as individuals or as a group can't choose to cleverly redefine themselves as non-taxpayers. Avoiding the physical confrontation that would have come with a direct seizure of primary church property, the U.S. Marshals have been ordered to wait until the Temple has explored every option for appeal; and on January 16 the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the Temple's case. All that's left is to negotiate the property transfer. Fears of a mini-Waco with better camera angles appear more unnecessarily dramatic with each passing week.

Indiana has long been America's minor leagues of religious extremism, all the way back to the pre-Billy Graham outdoor revivals that dotted the entire Ohio River Valley in the first few decades of the country's stretch westward. Described by cultural historians as the northernmost southern city in America, Indianapolis quietly hosted the early church efforts of independent minister and United Methodist psychological test flunkee Jim Jones, the man responsible for the easiest exploratory phone call in the career of Powers Boothe's agent. Indianapolis not only kept Jones around for a much longer and less scary run than California or Guyana, the city even offered the racially inclusive minister a chance to work with citizens through a civil rights administrative position.

Indiana's other high-profile late 20th century offering was the Faith Assembly movement, a splinter denomination best known for eschewing regular doctor involvement in favor of the Laying on Hands medical plan, the direct beneficiaries of which were the guys who make kiddie caskets. The Hoosier State's more benign but still slightly mysterious tapas of Christian culture include the singing Gaither Family (think hillbilly Neibuhrs) and America's most famous brood of Jehovah's Witnesses, the Jacksons of Chicago suburb Gary. Both Mormons and Pentecostals are building churches here, and since the post-Goldwater absorption of religious conservatism into the Republican Party, Indiana generally turns GOP colors on the big map by about 9:13 AM every election morning.

Midwestern skepticism and really cold winters tend to smother public conflicts in their sleep. Hoosier journalists were harder on Jones than the savvier media cultures near his west coast operation, while the Faith Assembly believers were locally reviled and eventually dissolved. Watching Indianapolis residents process the Temple stand-off is like watching a fat man in a baseball cap and suspenders devour a large and potentially stomach-upsetting steak. They seem to know the job ahead of them down to the last ounce. But it's a meal that could still potentially seize up on them, or perhaps a relative at the same table. Several unregistered, self-stressed New Testament churches like IBT are loosely organized, and the next congregation for whom tax collection becomes a self-embraced issue may not work to keep supportive, protesting militia members out of uniform.

For all that the specter of potential violence gave the Temple's protest an aura of patriot street credibility, it's hard to see the whole seven year process as anything more than a self-aggrandizing political protest that costs everyone money and half-legitimizes asinine rhetoric. Rejecting the rule of law by gamely fighting it in court seems kind of silly on the face of it; to a lesser extent, so does holding property rather than squatting on it. And the passionate believers' struggle amounts to a fight over which dog gets full control of a dirty sock (or "sovereignty," in the language of Dixon).

But these aren't the only front lines of social combat. The other headline-grabbing religious story in Indianapolis during the year 2000 was the appearance of nuns from the same order that put Mother Teresa in Calcutta. The resource-thin order had been fielding requests for several years to come in and help deal with the poverty and sheer lack of social services on the Circle City's east side. No word yet on whose rights might be threatened by helping the poor, or who might be convinced to set up a radio show vigil outside a community kitchen.

As the rest of the state settles into one long cold-winter shrug of complaints about the deterioration of Indiana high school basketball and the appeal of network reality TV, almost no one speaks about IBT with anything other than cockeyed interest in the news of the day. As one broad-shouldered Hoosier standing in the coffee line at an Indianapolis Village Pantry put it to his truckmate in a voice loud enough for all to hear: "Maybe they should have prayed for a better lawyer."

Praise the Lord in today's Plastic meetin'

courtesy of 40th Street Black


pictures Terry Colon

40th Street Black