The Family Research Council (FRC) has big plans for this election year – perhaps even legally questionable ones.
Kenyn Cureton, FRC's vice president for church ministries, appeared April 22 on Religious Right activist Janet Folger's "Faith2Action" radio program, discussing his organization's plans for mobilizing pastors this year. He may have been a little too frank.
During the discussion, Folger mentioned that members of her church were thinking of voting for U.S. Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. The idea that another Christian might dare to disagree with Folger on politics was apparently too much for her to bear.
"It just seems to me that the messages are somehow not reaching the congregations," Folger said. "Is it the pastors that need to speak more clearly? What's the answer?"
"I think that's the case," Cureton replied. "The pastors need to speak clearly about it. I'll tell you we are working with the Alliance Defense Fund on a series of sermons this fall for pastors to preach, so that they educate their people on the issues.
"We're gonna be talking about the value of life, the value of family and the value of freedom, basically talking about abortion and stem-cell research," he continued, "and then also about the gay agenda and then finally about our Christian heritage and how it's being stripped from every corner of society. And then finally we're gonna be doing a candidate comparison message that is going to ask pastors to cross the line."
"Really?" said Folger. "What do you mean 'cross the line'? You're going to be suggesting they tell people who to vote for?"
Cureton, perhaps realizing he was speaking too candidly, began to backpedal.
"We're going," he said, "to prompt pastors and say to them that, you know, we really believe that they need to challenge some of the things, some of the thinking that we have going on in our society, which is that separation of church and state doctrine, that we really need to preach the Bible on these issues and apply them to the things that are going on in the culture today."
I can't wait to see the Alliance Defense Fund's "candidate comparison." The IRS has been quite clear that documents that purport to compare candidates must be objective, fair and cover a range of issues if they're going to be distributed by churches and other tax-exempt charities. I have a feeling that's not what the ADF and the FRC have in mind, since their goal seems to be persuading people not to vote for Democrats.
Folger went on to assert that churches can "explain here's where the candidates stand, here's what the Bible says and people can draw that conclusion, but we need to make sure that it's clear not only what the Bible says but also where those candidates stand."
She concluded by wondering what would happen if a bunch of pastors would openly "cross the legal line" and added, "I think sometimes we need to do it anyway, to obey a higher authority than the one that represents our government. When the two are at odds, it's God we obey, much like Daniel."
My guess is that if anyone challenges the FRC on its scofflaw plans, the organization will insist that all it wants pastors to do is talk about issues. But discussion of issues is permissible, hence no need to "cross the line."
What's not permitted is for houses of worship to tie those issues to an individual's campaign and distribute material that makes one candidate look like a saint and the other a sinner.
What might happen if some religious leaders decided to listen to the FRC and cross the line? Their churches could be sanctioned by the IRS – audited, fined or stripped of their tax-exempt status. As my colleague Joe Conn pointed out yesterday, the IRS has just warned houses of worship not to venture down this partisan road.
Since the FRC and the ADF have a plan for this year, Americans United for Separation of Church and State will as well. We'll be reading the ADF's sample sermons, examining its "candidate comparison" and warning houses of worship to keep partisan material designed to influence voters out of the pews. Above all, we'll be reminding religious leaders why some lines are better left uncrossed.
The vast majority of clergy happily obey the law. Those who don't can expect a visit from the IRS.