Culture War Casualties

Republicans, Democrats Target Churches For Partisan Politics, As Election ’04 Nears The End

Sen. Sam Brownback was fired up.

Addressing a receptive crowd of Religious Right acti­vists during the Republi­can Party’s convention in New York City, the Kansas Republican made it clear that even though the public face of the meeting was dominated by moderates like California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the GOP’s “God and country” base had not been forgotten.

Brownback asserted that the country is in the midst of a “culture war” that it cannot afford to lose.

“I fear for the Republic, I really do,” said Brownback. “We are accused of having a radical agenda for saying that marriage is between a man and a woman and it is the best way for children to be raised. It is not about being hateful. It is about being truthful.”

Flanked by Bush campaign strategist and former Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed, Brownback, who in 2002 converted from an evangelical Pro­testant denomination to Roman Catho­licism, thundered, “We must win this culture war.” He assured the crowd that the president will work to stop legal abortion, block same-sex marriages and appoint federal court judges who share the views of religious conservatives.

Although the meeting was supposed to be closed to the press, New York Times reporter David Kirkpatrick was brought into it by attendees and wrote about the event for the newspaper.

Kirkpatrick reported that Brownback said during a second Bush term, the president will appoint federal judges more to the liking of religious conservatives. He accused the federal courts of unleashing “a 40-year assault on the Constitution” and of defining separation of church and state “to mean removal of church from state.”

The GOP outreach isn’t limited to Protestant fundamentalists. A Republican Party press release noted that Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee, met a group of more than 500 Catholics during the party’s convention.

The release noted that during the meeting, “Gillespie praised President Bush’s Faith-Based Initiative that enables faith-based organizations to compete on a level playing field with other organizations for federal funding.”

Other speakers included James Towey, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, Brownback and several conservative Catholic House members.

Across the ideological divide, Demo­crats have been busy courting religious voters as well sometimes taking their message straight into the pulpit.

At New Birth Baptist Church in Miami Aug. 29, Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe didn’t hesitate to tell the people sitting in the pews exactly what he wanted them to do.

Referring to President George W. Bush, he told congregants, “Bush has misled us for four years and will not mislead us the next four years. Get out and vote, and we’ll send Bush back to Texas.”

Although it took place during the time when the church normally would have been holding a worship service, the event had little to do with religion and a lot to do with politics. Flanked by local Democratic office-holders, McAuliffe pleaded for support in a state that could be crucial to the outcome of November’s election.

Former Democratic presidential candidate Al Sharpton also spoke, telling church members, “Didn’t nobody give us the right to vote. People lost their lives. We can’t sit here 40 years later and let somebody buy the vote, somebody hustle the vote, pimp the vote. We’ve got to win Florida.”

Also attending were U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.), state Sen. Frederica Wilson and state Sen. M. Mandy Dawson, both Democrats.

The partisan nature of the event did not escape the notice of the media. The South Florida Sun-Sentinel noted that the church’s pastor, Bishop Victor T. Curry, “made no apologies for turning his Sunday service into a political rally….”

The event also caught the attention of Americans United. In an Aug. 31 letter to the Internal Revenue Service, AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn requested a prompt investigation of the matter.

“This event seems to have gone beyond legitimate voter education about issues,” observed Lynn. “Rather, the event was partisan in its approach and included only Democrats. It promoted Democratic candidates while disparaging Republicans. I believe this event constitutes intervention in a political campaign on behalf of a candidate in clear violation of federal tax law. I urge you to take appropriate action to correct this abuse of the law.”

The events at the GOP convention and at New Birth Baptist are only two examples of the extraordinary amount of religiously charged politics that has surfaced in this election year. Chances are, they won’t be the last.

Both sides are aggressively pursuing religious voters. Con­ser­vative churches continue to gin up their activism on behalf of Bush, with prodding from the Religious Right. Last month, James Dobson’s Focus on the Family (FOF) and Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship (PF) announced a national campaign to urge conservative pastors to spend Sundays in September and October preaching about “the importance of voting.”

Prison Fellowship’s Wilber­force Forum has gone so far as to offer several “sample sermons” for pastors on its website. Although described in bland language on the Focus website, in reality the sermons offered under PF’s “National Preaching Ini­tiative” are harangues on Dob­son’s current obsession, same-sex marriage. The only exception is an essay by Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission that stakes out a biblical justification for political activism.

In September, Dobson took the unprecedented step of mailing 1.3 million voter registration forms to FOF supporters. In a letter accompanying the forms, Dobson asserted that the nation is at a crossroads and may not survive unless more religious conservatives vote.

“The future of our great nation depends on concerned Christians going to the polls to reflect their deeply held convictions,” charged Dobson. “But we can only do that if we are properly registered.”

“Most importantly, Election 2004 will decide what place marriage will have in the future of our country,” he wrote. “The institution of the family literally hangs in the balance.”

The goal of groups like Focus is simple: By constantly reminding religious conservatives that Bush opposes same-sex marriage and legal abortion, they hope to spur turnout and deliver crucial swing states to the Republican column.

Dobson is so concerned about the outcome of the election that he formed a new organization, Focus on the Family Action, with a tax status that allows it to engage in more overt politicking and lobbying. Dobson, who has publicly announced that he is supporting Bush, has also been appearing at a series of “Stand for the Family” rallies around the country designed to energize social conservatives.

FOF has also endorsed a campaign by the Southern Baptist Convention, www.ivotevalues.org, which seeks to persuade voters to elevate social issues such as same-sex marriage, abortion and religion in public life above economic concerns.

Religious Right warhorse Jerry Falwell has also been shilling for Bush at every opportunity. On July 1, Falwell used resources from his Jerry Falwell Ministries to endorse Bush, sparking a complaint to the IRS from Americans United. (See “Busted!” September 2004 Church & State.) Despite the complaint, the Lynchburg evangelist isn’t letting up.

Speaking at Southwestern Bap­tist Seminary in Fort Worth Aug. 24, Falwell lashed out at Amer­icans United and re­marked, “The press is here today expecting me to get into politics, which I’m not going to do, except to tell you to vote for the Bush of your choice.”

Baptist Press reported that before Falwell spoke, Pat Carlson, chair of the Tarrant County Republican Party, ad­dressed the students. South­western Seminary President Paige Patterson announced that voter registration tables had been set up outside the chapel.

Weary of being bashed over the issue of religion, Democrats this year are fighting back, scheduling a “People of Faith” luncheon during the Democratic convention that included representatives from Christianity, Islam and Judaism.

But the Democratic outreach doesn’t end there. Party nominee U.S. Sen. John F. Kerry and his running mate, U.S. Sen. John Edwards, have also been appearing frequently in sympathetic churches.

Such overt church-based politicking, however, has its drawbacks. For starters, houses of worship, as tax-exempt bodies, aren’t permitted to intervene in partisan campaigns or endorse candidates. They certainly aren’t permitted to host party rallies. Partisan politicking in church puts a house of worship’s tax exemption at risk.

Churches may register people to vote, and religious leaders may discuss issues, but overt endorsements or even indirect ones can land a church in trouble with the IRS.

Unfortunately, political observers say, that distinction is being lost as both parties rush to enlist support from religious groups.

Adding to the confusion is that some questionable activities are being conducted under the radar. Earlier this year, for example, staffers with the Bush re-election effort announced a plan to collect church directories in conservative Protestant and Roman Catholic congregations.

The tactic backfired sort of. Officials with the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the nation’s largest Protestant denomination and normally staunch Bush allies, criticized the plan, saying it would violate church integrity. SBC leader Land said he would counsel churches not to give up directories. Many local pastors echoed that concern in media interviews.

Faced with the criticism, the Bush campaign stopped talking publicly about the plan, but, based on first-person accounts and media reports that have been coming into AU’s office, still appears to be pursuing it.

Religion also played a prominent role at both party conventions. The Democrats featured a message from the Rev. James A. Forbes Jr., pastor of the large, interdenominational Riverside Church in New York City.

A few weeks later, former president Bill Clinton appeared in Forbes’ pulpit to deliver a Sunday sermon. Clinton never directly endorsed Kerry, but he slammed the Republicans, telling the crowd that during its convention, the GOP put on its “once-every-four-years compassionate face.” He also blasted the Religious Right for reducing “all those who disagree with them into two-dimensional cartoons.”

Asserted Clinton, “Politics dictated by faith is not the exclusive province of the right-wing.”

The assumption that deeply religious people care only about divisive social issues or the possibility of supping at the federal trough has indeed rankled some believers. During the GOP convention, the evangelical group Sojourners placed a full-page advertisement in The New York Times reminding Americans that many Christians see issues such as poverty, the war in Iraq and the environment as equally compelling.

The ad was headlined, “God is Not a Republican. Or a Democrat.” It took to task Religious Right leaders who “mistakenly claim that God has taken a side in this election, and that Christians should only vote for George W. Bush.”

The ad, signed by dozens of religious leaders and theology professors, went on to assert, “We believe that sincere Christians and other people of faith can choose to vote for President Bush or Senator Kerry for reasons deeply rooted in their faith. We believe all candidates should be examined by measuring their policies against the complete range of Christian ethics and values.”

With so much activity related to religion and politics going on, Americans United has been busy reminding religious leaders of what the law does and does not allow. Since 1996, AU has run a special effort called Project Fair Play, which seeks to educate religious leaders about the requirement imposed by federal tax law. In cases where houses of worship appear to be knowingly violating the law, AU requests the IRS to investigate.

Project Fair Play is in full swing this year. Most recently, AU commissioned a top Washington, D.C., law firm to draw up a legal document addressing issues of political activity in houses of worship. The memorandum, “Politics and the Pulpit,” written by former IRS official Milton Cerny at Caplin & Drysdale, was sent to dozens of denominational officials last month.

AU executive director Lynn said it was imperative that the organization acts now, because Falwell and other Religious Right leaders have been spreading bad advice about what churches may do in the political arena. Their disinformation campaign threatens to lead some religious leaders astray.

Over the summer, Falwell released a document written by one of his attorneys, Mat Staver, asserting that the IRS has no teeth and rarely enforces the “no politicking” rule on churches.

The AU memo handily debunks that claim, listing instances where religious groups have been denied tax exemption, have been audited or have been visited by IRS agents after engaging in partisan politicking.

“The Rev. Falwell states that no church has ever really lost its tax-exempt status,” observes the document. “This is clearly false. A simple search of IRS announcements for the word ‘church’ reveals that on average about one church a year loses its tax-exempt status.”

Continues the memo, “The greatest penalty, however, may be reputational. If the church becomes, fairly or not, primarily known in the community as the church that violated the law by supporting or opposing particular candidates, its ability to witness to the community may be irrevocably damaged.”

AU’s Lynn said he agrees.

“There is an overlooked danger to pulpit-based politicking,” observed Lynn. “By becoming an arm of a political party, a house of worship surrenders its independence and too often turns its back on the reason it was formed in the first place to offer people spiritual sustenance.”

Concluded Lynn, “Religiously based political parties have proved divisive and damaging to democracy in other countries. We must make sure they do not gain a foothold here.”