A Plethora Of Pulpit Politicking Problems?: Far-Right Pastors Prepare For Electoral Bids

Just because pastors have the right to run for office doesn’t mean they should get a free pass. Some of these religious leaders are using their houses of worship to promote their candidacies. This is a violation of federal law.

The state of Tennessee used to have a law that banned members of the clergy from running for public office. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1978 rightfully declared this provision unconstitutional.

In the United States, pretty much all adults, with very few exceptions, have the right to run for public office. I wouldn’t have it any other way. If democracy means anything, it means the right to choose our own leaders. Disqualifying people from the ballot because of their race, gender or religious beliefs is un-American.

That doesn’t mean voters should not subject candidates to scrutiny. Indeed they should. If you care about the separation of church and state, for example, you had better be prepared to closely follow the races and, if you have the opportunity, to ask candidates some hard questions about the meaning of religious freedom.

It may be more important than ever that you do this in 2016. Reuters reports that a Religious Right operative named David Lane hopes to persuade 1,000 conservative pastors to run for local, state and federal office. Reportedly, 500 have already agreed to do so.

Lane is running the effort through his American Renewal Project, a nationwide alliance of more than 100,000 right-wing pastors. As some observers have noted, the plan to convert clergy into candidates is a bit of tactical shift for the Religious Right. In the past, members of that movement tried to coalesce behind an established candidate and then used networks at houses of worship to propel him or her to victory.

“This is a fundamental shift in strategy,” John Fea, a history professor at Christian Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pa., told Reuters. “Rather than forcing this from the top down, this is about a grassroots approach to changing the culture by embedding ministers in local politics from the ground up.”

But just because these pastors have the right to run for office doesn’t mean they should get a free pass. As Reuters notes, some of these religious leaders are using their houses of worship to promote their candidacies. This is a violation of federal law.

Non-profit organizations holding 501(c)(3) status, a category that includes every house of worship in the country, may not intervene in elections by endorsing or opposing candidates. It looks like some of these pastors, prodded by groups like Alliance Defending Freedom, plan to openly violate the law.

Americans United will be keeping a close eye on developments. You can help us. As the 2016 election season heats up, we hope to create grassroots pressure that will persuade the Internal Revenue Service to more aggressively investigate church politicking.

The IRS has an online form that can be used to report instances of illegal pulpit politicking. You can find it here. If you see evidence of pulpit politicking, use the form to report the matter to the IRS. (You can do it anonymously if you want.) Be sure to include any supporting material such as newspaper articles, church bulletins, audio/video recordings, weblinks, etc. Remember, the IRS will not act on hearsay.

Also keep in mind that federal law bars non-profits from intervening in electoral contests between people. It is permissible for houses of worship to take a public stand on a ballot initiative or on proposed local, state or federal laws. A church can take a position on Ballot Question 1; it can’t advise voting for or against Sen. Smith.  

We are currently wrapping up production of the January issue of Church & State. I have a story in that issue about how religion is affecting the presidential race, so look for that next month. Lane’s project is a reminder, however, that it’s not just the presidential election – the effort to interject fundamentalist religion into politics and government at all levels continues apace.

We know what these folks are trying to do. They don’t like some features of modern life, such as the expansion of LGBT rights, secular public schools and the use of science instead of religion to determine public policy. They want to take us back to the days when far-right clerics used a narrow interpretation of the Bible to run our lives.

Make no mistake, this is a free country, which means the Religious Right has the right to use the democratic process to front candidates. But it also means we have the right to be aware of it, to sound the alarm and, most importantly, to insist that all political movements abide by the laws of the land.

P.S. Americans United's Executive Director was quoted this weekend on National Public Radio in a story about religion and politics. You can listen to the audio here.