The headline on the e-mail was straightforward: “Rally for Sally on Thursday!!” it demanded.
Advertising a partisan political event for incumbent Oklahoma State Rep. Sally Kern, the message continued, “The Rally for Sally Campaign Kick Off begins at 6:00 p.m., Thursday, June 24. Come and meet Sally and also meet candidates from various other races including State Attorney General, Treasurer, and Labor Commissioner. Some Congressional candidates may also be in attendance…. Hope to see you there!!”
The e-mail sounds like a typical appeal from a political campaign. It wasn’t, however. Instead, it was a message from Reclaiming Oklahoma For Christ, a tax-exempt religious group.
Despite federal tax law barring electioneering by non-profits, the Edmond-based Religious Right group had dived deep into partisan politics.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State quickly swung into action. In a July 21 complaint to the Internal Revenue Service, AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn requested an investigation of the apparent violation of the law.
“Reclaiming Oklahoma For Christ can’t be tax exempt and engage in partisan politicking at the same time,” said Lynn, in a press statement. “If the group wants to help Sally Kern or other candidates get elected, it must first forgo tax-exempt status.”
The Rev. Paul Blair, founder and director of Reclaiming Oklahoma For Christ, admitted sending the e-mail but was unrepentant.
“We have not and have never done anything illegal,” Blair, a former linebacker for the Chicago Bears, told The Oklahoman.
“We don’t sponsor or underwrite candidates politically,” he asserted, “but we certainly will send out bits of information on the national and local level if it will affect those who hold Christian values here in America.”
Blair’s indifference to the rules apparently springs from his view that federal tax law is unconstitutional as it applies to churches and his determination to bring all aspects of government under his version of God’s law.
His group’s intervention on behalf of Kern’s campaign, however, seems based as much on pragmatic politics as it is on “Christian values.” In the Reclaiming Oklahoma For Christ e-mail, the group expressed alarm at the fund-raising potential of Kern’s opponent, Democrat Brittany Novotny, the state’s first transgendered candidate.
“In case you missed it,” the e-mail said, “the homosexual lobby has recruited an individual that has had a sex change operation to run against Rep. Kern. The homosexual lobby from across America will be pouring money into this local race in an attempt to make a statement to the country by knocking out an outspoken Christian, pro-family representative. If they succeed, it will serve as a warning shot across the bough of all elected officials who defend Biblical values. Even if this is not your district, this race will effect [sic] you! Once a person is elected to the legislature, their voting impacts ALL Oklahomans.”
The e-mail concluded with a quote from Proverbs 29:2: “When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice: but when the wicked beareth rule, the people mourn.”
Blair’s relationship with Kern is based on shared views about social issues. The Oklahoma City legislator created national controversy in March 2008 when one of her speeches was posted on YouTube. In the address, Kern, a Baptist minister’s wife, insisted that homosexuality is “the biggest threat our nation has, even more so than terrorism or Islam, which I think is a big threat.”
The remarks were roundly condemned by some state and national pundits. But Blair’s group and other conservative religious forces organized an April rally on Kern’s behalf at the state capitol that drew hundreds of people.
Blair says Reclaiming Oklahoma For Christ was formed to carry on the political work of the late TV preacher D. James Kennedy. Kennedy, a Florida pastor and activist, formed a Center for Reclaiming America to push the Religious Right agenda, and he sponsored annual conferences with that name.
Blair says he attended Kennedy’s last conference in 2006 and came home determined to carry on the work in the Sooner State.
Other sources tell a slightly different story.
According to an article in The New American, Blair started his group after a 2005 breakfast meeting with Charlie Meadows, a right-wing activist in Oklahoma who works on behalf of the John Birch Society.
The Birch Society is less well known today, but in its heyday in the 1950s and early ’60s, it was a formidable political force on behalf of far-right causes. The conspiracy-minded society’s obsession with alleged plots to bring about one-world government led to a loss of political credibility, especially after it identified President Dwight D. Eisenhower as a tool of international communism.
Blair, 47, is a proud member of the Birch Society, telling its magazine that scripture predicts a “one-world, global government” but “that doesn’t mean we are to just roll over and play dead.”
“We have abandoned human government to the devil,” he said, “and now the devil is using human government to attack the home and the church through ungodly legislation like legalizing homosexual marriage and hate crimes.”
Blair apparently runs Reclaiming Oklahoma For Christ out of the facilities of Fairview Baptist Church, his Edmond congregation. The group and the church share a street address and a telephone number, and a link to the group’s Web site is featured prominently on the church’s homepage.
Reclaiming Oklahoma contends the federal ban on electioneering by churches and other nonprofits is unconstitutional. In a “Pulpit Freedom Position Paper” on the organization’s Web site, Blair argues that Congress overstepped its bounds when it passed the restriction in 1954 at the behest of U.S. Sen. Lyndon Johnson.
“The Johnson Amendment,” says Blair, “is itself an unconstitutional law striking out at the very first amendment to the Constitution. Pastors have the right to preach the Bible without censorship.”
In fact, the constitutionality of federal tax law was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in 2000. The three-judge panel, all Reagan appointees, unanimously held that government can apply restrictions when it extends benefits such as tax exemption. (Senior Judge James Buckley, brother of conservative pundit William F. Buckley, wrote the Branch Ministries v. Rosotti opinion.)
Blair concludes his “pulpit freedom” essay with an open appeal for a government based on religion.
“Historically in America,” he writes, “pastors played the key role in stirring the hearts of America toward liberty, knowing that all law (including political law and rulers) must be under the authority of God’s law…. Jesus is either Lord of all or He isn’t Lord at all.”
Despite these sectarian views, Blair’s group has attracted a significant following in Oklahoma.
Its July 9-10 “Reclaiming America For Christ Conference” boasted an attendance of 2,500. The event, held at the Trinity Baptist Church in Yukon, featured Answers in Genesis creationist lecturer Ken Ham, former Southern Baptist Convention president Bailey Smith, Rick Scarborough of Vision America and David Barton, longtime “Christian nation” propagandist and now favorite “historian” of Fox News commentator Glenn Beck. (See “Unreality Television,” September 2010 Church & State.)
Also on the conference program was Anita Bryant, a controversial anti-gay activist from 1970s-era culture-war conflicts. Bryant, best known as a singer, former beauty queen and orange juice promoter, led a virulent campaign against a Miami, Fla., ordinance that barred discrimination against gays.
After Bryant and her first husband divorced, church performance opportunities and Religious Right speaking engagements disappeared. She and her second husband Charlie Hobson Dry have apparently moved to Edmond, and her recent conference concert represents her return to the Religious Right spotlight.
Conference organizers were blunt about their fundamentalist theocratic objectives. A position paper on the conference Web site proclaimed, “We know and preach that the Church must be built on the Rock of Jesus Christ. So too, government was designed by God to be subject to and built on the Rock of Jesus Christ.”
Blair hopes to recruit fundamentalist church pastors to direct the movement’s political maneuvers, even resorting to emotional claims that Christianity is in danger of government censorship. The appeals have a militant edge.
“Many of these people,” he told the conference, “are expressing frustration with their pastors who refuse to address issues of our day. Go back and read the sermons of the pastors in Massachusetts and Virginia in the 1750s, ’60s and ’70s. Of course, they preached Jesus…. But they also knew that if they lost their civil liberty, they would lose their religious freedom as well. Their slogan was, ‘Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God.’”
Southern Baptist evangelist Smith took a similar tack.
“We have a generation of sissy preachers that are busy resting on their blessed assurances,” he said. “We need the boldness of Elijah, John the Baptist and Jesus himself.”
What Blair, Smith and their allies may not realize, however, is that most pastors do not want to see religion politicized, especially if it means being drawn into legally dubious partisan campaign activity.
The Rev. Bruce Prescott, a Baptist minister in Norman, Okla., and a member of the Americans United Board of Trustees, says, “Religion should never be politicized. It undermines the integrity of our houses of worship and is certain to divide congregations and communities.”
Prescott said he hopes the IRS launches an investigation of Reclaiming Oklahoma For Christ.
“Organizations like Reclaiming Oklahoma For Christ should not be permitted to make a mockery of our laws,” he said. “I urge the IRS to hold this group accountable for its actions.”
Others in Oklahoma share that viewpoint.
Arnold Hamilton, editor of The Oklahoma Observer, said, “Some religious leaders, like Blair, are purposely provoking legal fights, hoping to find the right court that will overturn the federal tax law ban on partisan politicking…. This is a dangerous game. And those who insist on playing it are playing with fire.”
Hamilton, writing in the Urban Tulsa Weekly, said faith informs politics, but “it’s dangerous when lawmakers, clergy and religious groups conspire to break down the wall that ensures each of us is free to worship in our own way.”
Americans United’s Lynn said he expects a widespread campaign in this election year to politicize houses of worship, but that AU will be watching and taking action when necessary. He encouraged AU members and allies to be alert to this issue.
To learn what you can do, visit AU’s church electioneering Web site – http://projectfairplay.org/