Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean readily acknowledges that he's never been one to wear his religion on his sleeve. But that hasn't stopped him from making a spate of visits at predominantly African-American churches in South Carolina, trying to connect with voters in advance of that state's important primary election.
Meanwhile, President George W. Bush no stranger to the pulpit himself continues to use religious rhetoric in his public pronouncements. Reflecting on the capture of toppled Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in mid December, Bush told reporters, "The liberty we prize is not America's gift to the world. It is God's gift to humanity. The arrest of Saddam Hussein changed the equation in Iraq. Justice was being delivered to a man who denied that gift from the Almighty to the people of Iraq."
With the election just 10 months off, religion is suddenly the hot topic of campaign '04 and indications are that America's houses of worship will be frequent targets for politicking and vote seeking. Pollsters and pundits have been paying increasing attention to the role religion plays in voting behavior, and the candidates are taking notice. Several Democratic presidential hopefuls, including Dean, the former Vermont governor, have already been making the rounds in churches. Bush frequently speaks before religious audiences as well.
Houses of worship can interact with politics in numerous appropriate and legal ways, but if they are not careful, they can violate the nation's tax laws and jeopardize their tax-exempt status. To make sure the latter does not happen, Americans United in 1996 launched Project Fair Play, a nationwide effort to educate religious leaders about the laws governing political activity.
In a nutshell, federal tax law allows houses of worship to address political, social and moral issues. Pastors may speak out for or against legal abortion, gun control or other issues. They may argue for tax increases or tax cuts. There is no barrier to the discussion of issues in church.
Houses of worship may also host voter forums, sponsor non-partisan voter registration drives and encourage parishioners to vote.
But houses of worship, like all other non-profit groups holding the 501(c)(3) designation, may not endorse or oppose candidates for public office. Religious leaders may not tell parishioners whom to vote for or whom not to vote for. They may not distribute a candidate's campaign material in church or use church resources to promote or attack an office-seeker. (Members of the clergy may, as private citizens, endorse candidates.)
Despite attempts by the Religious Right and its congressional allies to change the Internal Revenue Service Code in recent years (see "Pulpit Politics," page 4), the provision barring outright electioneering in churches remains the law of the land.
Since 1992, Americans United has reported 45 houses of worship and religious non-profits for violating IRS regulations and endorsing or opposing Republican, Democratic or third-party candidates. One church, the Church at Pierce Creek near Binghamton, N.Y., had its tax-exempt status revoked by the IRS. Others have been investigated.
Although Americans United does report religious organizations that blatantly violate the law, the main thrust of Project Fair Play is educational. To that end, the organization produces materials designed to explain federal tax law.
This material can be accessed at AU's website, www.au.org, under the "Churches & Politics" section. Particularly useful is "Churches and Politics: A Guide for Religious Leaders," which employs a question-and-answer format to explain, in non-legalistic language, what houses or worship can and cannot do regarding elections.
In past election years, Americans United has also produced special mailings for religious groups to warn them of the dangers of distributing biased "voter guides" produced by organizations like the Christian Coalition.
AU maintains that the Coalition's guides are deliberately slanted to favor ultra-conservative Republican candidates. An investigation of the guides undertaken by Americans United in 1996 exposed the various underhanded techniques the Coalition uses to distort candidates' positions and steer voters toward the group's favored candidates. (See "Stacked Deck," July-August 1996 Church & State.)
This year, Americans United again plans to send mailings to church and denominational leaders throughout the country, advising them of the dangers of engaging in partisan politicking. In addition, AU will also continue to report serious abuses of the law to the IRS.
Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn said he believes most church leaders follow the law and have no interest in mixing partisan politics with sermonizing. The few who don't, he said, must realize that church-based electioneering not only jeopardizes a house of worship's tax-exempt status but also threatens to divide congregations.
"Polls show that most Americans oppose pulpit politicking," Lynn said. "Federal tax law wisely prevents America's houses of worship from becoming cogs in some candidate's political machine.