October 1, 2006
How would Jesus vote?
With a pivotal election five weeks away, leaders on the religious right have launched an all-out drive to get Christians from pew to voting booth. Their target: the nearly 30 million Americans who attend church at least once a week but did not vote in 2004.
Their efforts at times push legal limits on church involvement in partisan campaigns. That is by design. With control of Congress at stake Nov. 7, those guiding the movement say they owe it to God and to their own moral principles to do everything they can to keep social conservatives in power.
The Rev. Rick Scarborough, a leading evangelical in Texas, has recruited 5,000 “patriot pastors” nationwide to promote an agenda that aligns neatly with Republican platforms. “We urge them to avoid legal entanglement, but there are times in a pastor’s life when he needs to take a biblical stand,” Scarborough said. “Our higher calling is to Christ.”
The campaign encourages individual pastors to use sermons, Bible studies and rallies to drive Christians to the polls — and, by implication or outright endorsement, to Republican candidates. One online guide to discussing the election in church, produced by the Focus on the Family ministry, offers this tip: If a congregant says her top concerns are healthcare and national security, suggest that Jesus would make abortion and gay marriage priorities.
At a recent rally in Pennsylvania, Focus on the Family founder James C. Dobson told a crowd of 3,000 that it would be “downright frightening” if Republicans lost control of Congress. If there’s a good Christian on the ballot, he said, failing to vote “would be a sin.”
Remember, this directly contravenes the 1954 law that restricts churches (and other tax-exempt organizations) from intervening in political campaigns on behalf of any candidate or party.
The IRS defines intervention as “any and all activities that favor or oppose one or more candidate for public office.” Unfortunately that leaves a gaping loophole that enables churches to campaign on “policy issues,” such as abortion and gay marriage. And the churches are exploiting that loophole for all it’s worth:
Scarborough, for instance, has spent a great deal of time far from his Texas parish, rallying Christian voters against an initiative promoting embryonic stem-cell research in Missouri. At his events, Scarborough makes a point not to mention Missouri’s Republican Sen. Jim Talent, who is in a tight fight for reelection.
But in private, he says candidly that he expects — and hopes — his efforts will give Talent a boost. “If a pro-life candidate benefits from Christians being involved, to God be the glory,” Scarborough said.
Pastors can further help their favored candidates by distributing “issue-oriented” voter guides in church, a tactic used for years among secular (often left-leaning) groups such as the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and adapted to faith communities by the Christian Coalition in the 1990s.
Yet even when churches blatantly flout the tax-exemption laws, they are rarely penalized by the IRS:
In a recent article aimed at evangelical preachers, [Mathew Staver, a prominent Christian lawyer,] wrote that they “should feel free” to go even further and endorse a candidate from the pulpit because he thought the IRS law was unconstitutional. He repeatedly noted that the IRS had rarely sanctioned churches. The Church at Pierce Creek in Binghamton, N.Y., is the only one ever to lose its tax-exempt certification, for sponsoring newspaper ads that opposed presidential candidate Bill Clinton.
Far more often, IRS agents resolve complaints by training church leaders to avoid future missteps, said Lois G. Lerner, who directs the IRS unit for tax-exempt groups. In 2004, the IRS resolved dozens of complaints this way, including such blatant violations as churches donating to a candidate’s campaign or placing political signs on their property.
Given the slim chance of serious sanction, “I encourage pastors to exchange their muzzles for megaphones,” Staver wrote in the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s monthly newspaper, the National Liberty Journal.
The IRS, however, may be losing patience: in February it warned churches that they were in danger of becoming “arms of political campaigns and parties.” So will they lose their tax-exempt status? You bet. And the second coming will take place next Tuesday.
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