The Rev. Jerry Falwell is stepping up his activism in favor of Republican political candidates and urging other conservative clergy to do likewise.
Speaking at a gathering of Southern Baptist pastors in North Carolina in November, Falwell told attendees about recent elections in Virginia, where several churches got together and endorsed "about a dozen" candidates, all of whom won.
The Lynchburg, Va.-based TV preacher added that days before the election, he sent a letter to the 24,000 members of his Thomas Road Baptist Church, reminding them that failing to vote is a sin.
Backing up his words about political activism, Falwell began his remarks in Winston-Salem by endorsing Nathan Tabor, a Republican who hopes to be elected to an open seat in North Carolina's 5th district.
"He's my breed and brand of Christian, and if I lived here I'd vote for him," Falwell said. "I told him if I could help him by either cursing him or blessing him just let me come and do it, whichever will help him most."
Continued Falwell, "He stands for the Judeo-Christian ethics, the biblical principles. He is solid, and he'll be there for a long time. He'll be like Jesse Helms. You'll be able to depend on him."
During his remarks, Falwell also blasted Democratic Senators Hillary Clinton (N.Y.), Ted Kennedy (Mass.) and Tom Daschle (N.Dakota), accusing them of religious bigotry for blocking a handful of Bush federal court nominees. (Critics of the nominees, including Americans United, say the nominees hold extreme views about the Constitution.) He also criticized court rulings striking down government-sponsored Ten Commandments displays and sodomy laws, saying, "Who would have thought that could happen in our lifetime?"
His immediate political goal, Falwell told the crowd, "is to stop abortion entirely."
Church-state experts note that clergy should respond to Falwell's advice about partisan politicking with a healthy dose of skepticism. Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn said federal tax law clearly bars churches and other tax-exempt groups from intervening in elections. While clergy are free to urge their congregants to vote, they may not use church resources to support political candidates.
Lynn said Falwell should know the provisions of that law very well from personal experience. In February 1993, the Internal Revenue Service determined that funds from Falwell's Old Time Gospel Hour program were illegally funneled to a political action committee. The IRS forced Falwell to pay $50,000 and retroactively revoked the Old Time Gospel Hour's tax-exempt status for 1986-87.
The Biblical Recorder reported that Falwell in his recent North Carolina appearance also bragged about a Nov. 5 meeting he had with President George W. Bush in Washington. Falwell, along with some 400 other Religious Right leaders and their allies, was invited to watch Bush sign a bill outlawing certain types of late-term abortions.
After the bill-signing, Falwell had a private meeting with Bush. (Others in attendance were Southern Baptist Convention President Jack Graham, former SBC president Adrian Rogers, Pat Robertson lawyer Jay Sekulow, right-wing Christian talk show host Janet Parshall, National Religious Broadcasters President Frank Wright, National Association of Evangelicals President Ted Haggard and Southern Baptist lobbyist Richard Land.)
Recalled Falwell, "I told the president last week in the Oval Office, I said, 'Sir, there are 80 million of us evangelicals in this country and we've come to look upon you not only as our president but as a man of God.' He said, 'Jerry, I'll do my best. You put great pressure on me. I'll do my best not to disappoint you.'"
Americans United's website has a special section on houses of worship and politics with much useful information. (See http://www.au.org/relpol.htm.) AU also produces a pamphlet, "Religion, Partisan Politics and Tax Exemption: What Federal Law Requires And Why." Single copies are available from Americans United by sending a business size, self-addressed, stamped envelope; write for information about bulk copies.