Washington, D.C., in December was not exactly festive. The constant talk concerning impeachment became a mind- and spirit-numbing exercise, even for so-called "political junkies." There was, of course, other news. But inside the beltway, reporters seemed compelled to find some real or rhetorical link between impeachment and whatever non-impeachment developments they had to cover.
In spite of this atmosphere, Americans United had a promise to keep and a story to tell before Christmas. We had advised the press in September that as part of our Project Fair Play we would be reporting to the Internal Revenue Service churches that chose to distribute the highly biased, always pro-Republican voter guides the Sunday before the general election. Many Americans -- AU members and otherwise -- had sent information from around the country when they discovered the guides in houses of worship.
We decided that for the sake of efficiency we would collect representative samples of the kinds of activity uncovered and put together a packet of eight complaints for filing with the IRS. A press release was dutifully completed and a room booked at the National Press Club to announce our action.
By 10:05 the turnout was quite respectable. Representatives from Religion News Service and the Christian Broadcasting Network were there. So were reporters from the leading tax news services, PBS and Bloomberg News, a major business news service. Washington correspondents from many cities in which cited churches were located showed up, including The Orange County (Calif.) Register and The Chicago Sun-Times. The Associated Press caught up with the story later in the day.
As the printed pieces appeared, we received follow-up calls to do radio shows and interviews, along with a flow of letters and electronic mail. Most pointedly, proving that people do read, was an extraordinary voice-mail message left over the weekend following our press conference.
Pastor Wiley Drake of First Southern Baptist in Buena Park, Calif., announced he was "very, very disappointed" with AU's stance. "That is," he intoned, "an absolute ungodly approach, absolutely Satanic approach."
Lest we feel that this was just a passing negative thought, Pastor Drake continued, "I want you to know this is one pastor that is going to lead as many people as he can to pray imprecatory prayer against the Americans United for Separation of Church and State until they quit attacking God's people." For non-theologians, imprecatory prayer is usually defined as a curse, a request for evil to befall the prayed upon person.
I thought I should explore Pastor Drake's rather severe assessment of us with him directly, so I called. After giving him a five-minute history of Project Fair Play, I was amazed when he responded that "philosophically, I agree with you."
What, then, I asked is the problem? He said we had "overreacted" to the Coalition's guides. When I explained that we have been studying the guides for eight years and found them highly partisan and often containing outright lies or wild distortions, he again responded -- surprisingly with conviction -- that "some criticism is well-placed" and "to say the Christian Coalition guides are objective would be naive."
If so, I inquired, shouldn't churches be in the forefront of condemning "bearing false witness" by misleading potential voters about candidates' positions? Again, "philosophical agreement."
What, then, I tried to figure is our difference of opinion? It seemed (after our hour's conversation) to come down to this comment: "My serious concern...is that this [AU] program is not to correct a problem but to eliminate the church from the political arena." Pastor Drake called this the "hidden agenda."
If we at Americans United spent our time reporting only activities connected to far-right Republican candidates there might be some weight to this argument. However, I have a letter on my desk now from the attorney for New Psalmist Baptist Church, a Baltimore congregation where church leaders and President Bill Clinton effectively turned the morning worship service into a Democratic pep rally the Sunday before the election. The letter objects to AU's complaint to the IRS and denies there was any "church sponsored partisan political activity," in spite of considerable television and newspaper reports to the contrary.
Our agenda has never been hidden -- it is to get religious groups of all stripes to understand and obey the law, and to understand that if they do not, they risk adverse tax consequences. Pastor Drake agreed to read our legal materials and with any luck, he will take seriously the analysis contained in them.
Pastor Drake, at one point, discussed the origin of the phrase "bully pulpit," noting that many churches in our early history actually declared one or more week-long periods for political discussion and invited all local candidates to speak.
We've never complained, of course, when genuine non-partisan political education is an activity of a church or other religious institutions. But when anybody thinks he or she can get partisan advantage out of a church's congregation by getting resources or other "blessings" denied to other candidates, that person becomes a bully of the worst kind -- and we will still be there to turn him in to the principal.
Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.