By Joseph L. Conn
The Rev. Donald Wildmon was in full Mississippi growl, and Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn was the object of his wrath.
“Let me make one thing clear to Rev. Lynn and his cohorts,” said the American Family Association (AFA) leader in a Feb. 2 e-mail alert. “We have no intention of bowing down to his threatening demands. Rev. Lynn is mistaken if he thinks his threat will scare this minister from exercising his First Amendment rights.”
What had the Tupelo-based Religious Right leader in such an uproar?
On Jan. 31, Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed complaints with the Internal Revenue Service about biased voter guides being distributed by the AFA and David Barton’s WallBuilders Presentations, two prominent tax-exempt Religious Right organizations.
AU’s Lynn said the guides were clearly stacked to favor Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee.
The guides, posted on the groups’ Web sites, list the Republican candidates and their alleged stands on a range of eight issues, including support for a human life amendment, “traditional marriage,” “business freedom” and “moral education” and opposition to “gay pride.” Only Huckabee is assigned a “yes” stance on all of the issues.
AU’s Lynn said the sponsoring organizations seem to have given the candidates no opportunity to respond to these issues and instead assigned stances based on the organizations’ own “research” and subjective analysis. Footnotes supposedly documenting the candidates’ stances are often irrelevant or old. In several cases, the guides reference sources from 1994 and 1996.
Said Lynn, “These guides are not voter education, they’re partisan propaganda. Tax-exempt organizations are barred by federal law from partisan electioneering.
“Wildmon and Barton are perfectly free to support any presidential candidate they choose,” he added. “But they are not free to misuse tax-exempt resources for partisan ends.”
AFA and WallBuilders are leading Religious Right groups with deep pockets and wide influence among religious conservatives.
AFA, which took in $17 million in fiscal 2006, is best known for its opposition to gay rights and risqué television programming. Wildmon, its founder and chairman, has personally endorsed Huckabee for president.
WallBuilders, based in Aledo, Texas, is known for spreading “Christian nation” revisionist historical materials. While its nonprofit arm took in only $1.6 million in fiscal 2005, the organization’s for-profit press earns huge sums churning out books, videos and pamphlets. The operation’s reach among right-leaning clergy is extraordinary.
Barton, WallBuilders’ founder and president, has appeared at pastors’ briefings that featured Huckabee as a speaker and were intended to promote his candidacy, according to news reports.
Lynn added that Wildmon and Barton should be ashamed for trying to lure churches into their partisan scheme.
“I am particularly outraged that these voter guides indicate that they are suitable for use in churches and other tax-exempt organizations,” he said. “In fact, they are not. Any church that distributes these biased guides is risking its tax exemption and casting aside its integrity.”
Huckabee’s supporters apparently agreed with Americans United that the AFA guides clearly supported their man. Activists with “HucksArmy,” a grassroots group pushing the Arkansas candidate, sent anonymous e-mails to evangelical churches in key states recommending the one-page flyers.
One e-mail obtained by Americans United recommended the AFA’s “great guide” and noted that it had been approved for church distribution by Liberty Counsel, a Religious Right legal group affiliated with the late Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. (Liberty Counsel chief Mat Staver has endorsed Huckabee, and so has Liberty Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr.)
The e-mail came from a generic address and was signed only “Chris.” It gave no indication that it came from a group promoting Huckabee’s candidacy.
Americans United’s complaints to the IRS come in a presidential campaign where religion has played an extraordinarily prominent role.
The Religious Right’s actions in the GOP contest have been particularly interesting. In 2000, leaders of the fundamentalist political movement anointed George W. Bush as their favorite and lined up behind him in a solid bloc. In this year’s race, however, they had trouble settling on a horse.
All the major Religious Right leaders (with the notable exception of quirky TV preacher Pat Robertson) agreed that pro-choice, pro-gay Rudy Giuliani was unacceptable and had to be stopped from getting the nomination. But their agreement fizzled after that.
The other GOP candidates were found lacking on one point or another.
As the campaign progressed, however, Huckabee, a Southern Baptist preacher and former Arkansas governor, attracted a growing flock of grassroots Religious Right activists. With other options fading, most major movement leaders finally ambled into his camp.
To rally more support for Huckabee, Religious Right organizations engaged in the legally and ethically dubious tactics for which the theocratic movement is well known.
In Florida, for example, the AFA, the Florida Family Policy Council (a James Dobson affiliate), Tim and Beverly LaHaye and other Religious Right powerhouses organized a “pastors’ policy briefing” for evangelical clergy.
The Jan. 21-22 “Rediscovering God in America” event in Orlando, promoted in the name of the Florida Renewal Project, was ostensibly nonpartisan. Political observers noted, however, that it seemed clearly intended to advance Huckabee.
The Dallas Morning News noted that the event was surrounded in secrecy but that several Huckabee supporters were key players.
John Stemberger, head of the Florida Family Policy Council and a Huckabee supporter, told the newspaper he was “not at liberty to talk” in detail about the gathering.
“It’s not a place where candidates can be endorsed and be promoted,” he said. “They’re invited to come and give their personal story.”
But it turned out that only Huckabee did so.
According to The Christian Post, Huckabee said he was not there as a presidential candidate. But his sermon had broad political implications. Huckabee called for a constitutional amendment banning abortion and demanded that the assembled throng become active in politics.
Quoting scripture, Huckabee said, “We are taught that we are the salt of the earth. That means that when something is spoiling, we are to be there to keep it from spoiling. We miss that if we think the purpose of believers is to be really, really well behaved in church.
“Being well behaved in church is a fine thing, but we don’t change the world by being behaved in church,” he said. “We change the world when we are the salt, and that means we sometimes will irritate and sometimes agitate, but we will preserve.”
Huckabee’s remarks drew standing ovations from the 5,000 evangelical clergy and others gathered at the Rosen Center Hotel. Another 30,000 people were reportedly registered to view the conference by simulcast.
Huckabee has also appeared repeatedly as a speaker at evangelical church worship services. According to Arkansas Democrat-Gazette religion editor Frank Lockwood, the campaign distributed a document, “Evangelical Outreach: What can a pastor do to help?,” that advised clergy on federal tax law.
The document warned preachers not to endorse the candidate from the pulpit. But some Huckabee supporters pushed the tax-law envelope to back their candidate.
Texas televangelist Kenneth Copeland apparently endorsed Huckabee and raised money for the candidate during a “private” session at his annual by-invitation-only Ministers Conference Jan. 23.
According to the Trinity Foundation, a Texas-based evangelical watchdog group that opposes TV preachers’ excesses, Copeland temporarily adjourned the conference and then reconvened the group as a “private meeting.”
Copeland praised Huckabee for supporting him in the face of a Senate investigation into Copeland’s use of ministry funds. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) is looking into Copeland’s religious empire as well as five other “prosperity gospel” outfits where questions have been raised about personal enrichment through tax-exempt resources.
“[Huckabee told me] ‘Why should I stand with them and not stand with you?’” said Copeland. “‘They’ve only got 11 per cent approval rating.’ And then he said, ‘Kenneth Copeland, I will stand with you.’ He said, ‘You’re trying to get prosperity to the people and they’re trying to take it away from ’em.’ He said, ‘I will stand with you any time, anywhere, on any issue.’ That settled that right there. I said, ‘Yeah, that’s my man! That’s my man, right there.’”
According to Trinity, Copeland and his supporters at the conference raised $111,000 in cash for Huckabee, with about a million dollars in pledged donations. Copeland later claimed that Huckabee had rented the Newark, Texas, religious building for $2,500 for the time spent passing the hat for the campaign.
Said Trinity’s Ole Anthony, “If this action isn’t illegal under the IRS Code, it certainly strains all sense of ethics.”
Copeland featured Huckabee on his “Believer’s Voice of Victory” television program for six straight episodes back in November. The evangelist claimed Huckabee was there as an author and preacher, not as a candidate.
According to Trinity, Copeland certainly confirmed his dedication to the prosperity gospel. He reportedly told his followers at the Ministers Conference that he has personally been a billionaire “a long time” and that his ministry has taken in $1.3 billion over 41 years.
As Church & State went to press, the late-in-the-game Religious Right drive for Huckabee seemed destined for failure. After Giuliani, Fred Thompson and Mitt Romney dropped out of the race, John McCain was widely acknowledged as the likely GOP nominee.
Although his record in Congress is quite conservative, McCain is hated by some Religious Right leaders as well as many secular right-wing activists.
Religious conservatives like his consistent record in favor of an abortion ban, but dislike his support for stem-cell research, the McCain-Feingold limits on electioneering abuses, his opposition to some tax cuts and his moderate stance on immigration. Some have never forgiven him for his drubbing of TV preachers Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell as “agents of intolerance” back in 2000.
On Feb. 5, the day of the Super Tuesday primaries, James Dobson issued a statement blasting McCain.
“I am deeply disappointed,” said the Colorado Springs-based religious broadcaster, “the Republican Party seems poised to select a nominee who did not support a Constitutional amendment to protect the institution of marriage, voted for embryonic stem-cell research to kill nascent human beings, opposed tax cuts that ended the marriage penalty, has little regard for freedom of speech, organized the Gang of 14 to preserve filibusters in judicial hearings, and has a legendary temper and often uses foul and obscene language….Given these and many other concerns, a spoonful of sugar does NOT make the medicine go down. I cannot, and will not, vote for Sen. John McCain, as a matter of conscience.
“I certainly can’t vote for Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama based on their virulently anti-family policy positions,” he continued. “If these are the nominees in November, I simply will not cast a ballot for president for the first time in my life.”
Dobson said he was issuing his statement as an individual citizen and not as head of a tax-exempt empire. He refused to endorse either Romney or Huckabee, the two candidates vying with McCain for the GOP nod.
But when Romney failed to win adequate voter support on Super Tuesday, he dropped out of the race and Dobson quickly moved to endorse Huckabee, the last man standing against McCain.
Critics questioned Dobson’s timing, noting that his blast at McCain came too late to help either Romney or Huckabee on Super Tuesday. And his endorsement of Huckabee seemed to come after McCain all but had the nomination sewn up.
Gary Bauer, head of American Values and a long-time crony of Dobson’s, publicly castigated the Focus on the Family leader for continuing to take potshots at McCain.
Southern Baptist Convention lobbyist Richard Land shares Bauer’s perspective. He was quoted in his denominational news service as saying religious conservatives should not have “any reason to be uncomfortable” with McCain, Romney or Huckabee.
Land, whose personal favorite Thompson failed badly, said the claim that a McCain candidacy would destroy the Republican Party is “nuts.”
“If Rudy Giuliani had been nominated,” he added, “it might have divided the party.” He noted that McCain is “saying all the right things” about appointing conservatives to the U.S. Supreme Court, an overriding issue with many Religious Right operatives.
Several justices are likely to leave the bench during the next president’s term, and the direction of the Supreme Court is at stake on reproductive rights, gay rights, church-state separation and civil liberties generally.
Some pundits and prognosticators have pronounced the Religious Right all but dead. But in this election year, the movement seems very much alive, but deeply divided. As Nov. 4 approaches, church-based electioneering is likely to increase.
Said Americans United’s Lynn, “All Americans have a right to participate in our democracy. But everyone must play by the rules. We’ll be watching closely to see if religious groups misuse tax-exempt resources to intervene in the election. If they do, we’ll take appropriate action.”