The Rev. Gus Booth is one of a handful of clergy who plan to endorse political candidates from the pulpit this Sunday as part of a Religious Right scheme to turn churches into a right-wing political machine.
Booth, pastor of the Warroad Community Church in Warroad, Minn., says he has every right to tell his parishioners how to vote.
"If we can tell you what to do in the bedroom, we can certainly tell you what to do in the voting booth," Booth told the Religion News Service's Adelle Banks. "The voting booth is not some sort of sacred cow that you can't talk about. You're supposed to bring the gospel into every area of life."
I don't know about you, but I would just as soon that Pastor Booth stay out of both my bedroom and the voting booth (certainly when I'm in it).
Apparently I'm not alone. On Wednesday, Baptist Press released a new LifeWay Research poll that had some astounding figures in it.
According to this public opinion survey, 75 percent of Americans do not believe "it is appropriate for churches to publicly endorse candidates for public office." What's more, 85 percent think it is not "appropriate for churches to use their resources to campaign for candidates for public office." Eighty-seven percent do not "believe it is appropriate for pastors to publicly endorse candidates for public office during a church service."
Now, LifeWay is not some godless liberal outfit that is trying to bring secularism to America, as the Religious Right might put it. In fact, LifeWay is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, a denomination whose leadership is squarely in the Religious Right camp. (They must have cringed when these poll results rolled in.)
I know we've talked a lot about the Alliance Defense Fund's diabolical church-politicking scheme here at The Wall of Separation. But it's rare when a Religious Right group is so upfront about the radical, disastrous changes they want to foist on America.
Americans know that politicizing our churches is terrible thing to do. It will divide our communities along religious lines, undercutting our secular and pluralistic democracy. If elections boil down to which churches can turn out the most voters from their own pews, the majority faiths will control the government and church-state separation and interfaith peace are sure to fall by the wayside.
Partisanship in the pulpit is also disastrous for religion. It will split congregations, pitting church members against each other and against their religious leaders. And it will open the door to manipulation by unscrupulous politicians. The integrity of houses of worship will almost certainly be sacrificed on the altar of political expediency.
Yesterday, a Methodist pastor in Georgia roundly denounced the ADF scheme.
"Such a plan is foolhardy and ill-advised," wrote the Rev. Creede Hinshaw in the Savannah Morning News. "The wall of separation between church and state is already porous, but this action, if successful, could cause a disastrous flood. The average American worshiper does not want to drive into the church parking lot to be assaulted by campaign signs endorsing a candidate for mayor or president."
Hinshaw, pastor of Savannah's Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church, said churches will be harmed by partisanship.
"From first-hand experience I assure you it's not a pretty picture to attend a regional or national church convention when the election of a bishop or moderator is at stake," observed Hinshaw. "The church can descend into partisan politics all too quickly, often with a thin veneer of piety, and I'm not eager to see that extended to secular politics. Here's one case where Caesar is saving us from ourselves."
In spite of the overwhelming sentiment of the American people and the wishes of the vast majority of clergy, however, Pastor Booth's friends at the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) are prodding evangelical pastors around the country to misuse their tax-exempt pulpits this Sunday to endorse political candidates. (Booth, a delegate to this year's National Republican Convention, says he'll be pushing John McCain.)
The ADF's founders – TV preachers, radio ranters and other right-wing types – have long sought to forge fundamentalist church-goers into a disciplined voting bloc, and this is their latest gambit. As Pastor Booth helpfully notes, they want to control all aspects of your life, from the voting booth to the bedroom.
Booth, of course, has a broadly protected right to tell his congregants what to think about a wide variety of religious, moral and, yes, political matters. The Constitution protects his freedom of speech and freedom of religion. I personally don't want his advice on any of those things. If his congregants do want his recommendations on how best to fold their bed sheets, it's up to them.
But if Booth's church wants to keep its tax exemption, it cannot endorse partisan political candidates. That's a simple rule of the IRS Code that applies to all churches, charities and educational groups with a 501(c)(3) status.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State reported Booth's church to the IRS earlier this year when he gave a Sunday sermon insisting that Christians could not vote for Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. If he abuses his congregation's tax-exempt status this Sunday, we'll do it again.