Pulpits And Partisan Politics: A Bad, Unethical, Immoral And Unlawful Mixture

The cover story of this issue of Church & State is about the Internal Revenue Service and its inability or unwillingness to aggressively crack down on  partisan politicking by houses of worship.

This issue is important to me. I came to Americans United in the summer of 1992 when the country was in the middle of a spirited presidential election. A young governor named Bill Clinton who, just a few months before was more or less unknown, was taking on the incumbent, President George H.W. Bush.

The prospect of the first Democrat in the White House since Jimmy Carter put some Religious Right groups into a state of panic. They let Clinton have it with all they had.

But some went too far. Just before the election, a church near Binghamton, N.Y., decided to place a full-page newspaper ad in USA Today warning people that it was a sin to vote for Clinton. The ad actually listed specific Bible verses that Clinton was allegedly violating.

Although I was still brand new to Americans United, I knew this wasn’t right. Tax-exempt organizations aren’t permitted to engage in this kind of partisan politicking. My training as a minister and an attorney made that blazingly clear.

Americans United reported the church to the IRS, and its tax exemption was revoked. Despite the efforts of TV preacher Pat Robertson’s attorneys, two federal courts upheld the revocation.

Americans United has been taking a deeper look at pulpit politicking since then. In 1996, we formalized Project Fair Play, a special program that educates clergy and others about what the law requires and why it requires it.

We’ve encountered opposition, of course. Groups like Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) insist that members of the clergy have the right to run their churches like political action committees. Every election year, ADF leaders prod pastors to openly violate the law – and some do.

Americans United remains committed to ensuring that houses of worship stay out of partisan politicking. Because so much misinformation plagues this issue, I want to make a few things clear. First off, it’s essential to understand that Americans United’s efforts in this area are even-handed. Despite what Religious Right groups claim, we do not single out conservative churches for harassment.

Every election year we send tens of thousands of letters to houses of worship across the country reminding religious leaders that they may not use their houses of worship to get someone elected to or defeated for public office. We purchase a list from a commercial firm, and we make sure it represents a broad cross section of the American religious community – left, right and in the middle as well as Christian and non-Christian.

(By the way, every year when we send this letter, I get an angry reply from a pastor in Texas who demands that I stop communicating with him. He even claims it’s illegal for me to mail material to him. Of course, we always make sure his church is on the list!)

The second thing to remember is that most religious leaders in America follow the law. Numbers vary, but scholars estimate that there are about 350,000 houses of worship in America. ADF had about 2,000 pastors take part in its last “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.” Math doesn’t have to be your strong suit to see that’s a tiny percentage.

Most religious leaders have no interest in trying to tell their congregants how to vote. They realize that actions like that are arrogant and that they deny moral agency to the men and women sitting in the pews.

Nevertheless, there are always some who try it – and they’re not always the pastors of small churches, either. Some run mega-churches, and in 2012, several Roman Catholic bishops issued pastoral letters to their flocks stating, in language that was hardly veiled, that it would be a grave sin to vote for someone who holds the views of President Barack Obama – like Obama himself.

This year it looks like we’ll have another Clinton on the ballot and Donald Trump, both of whom, you might have noticed, tend to be polarizing figures. Some conservative pastors have vowed to do all they can to defeat Clinton, while some progressive clerics say they have a moral obligation to stop Trump.

Both camps need to find a way to address the issues of campaign 2016 without lapsing into the type of activity that’s designed to get a candidate elected or defeated.

 This year, AU will remind religious leaders again about the law – even that fellow in Texas – and we’ll also prod the IRS to renew enforcement of our nation’s laws.

Fair play is all we seek. It’s not too much to expect.

           

Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.