Pernicious Pulpit Politicking

Religious Leaders Should Reject ADF's Reckless Gambit

Religious Right activists often claim to be big fans of law and order – so surely they would reject any call to knowingly violate the laws of the country, right?

Wrong. Consider the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), the largest Religious Right legal group in the nation, which is calling on pastors to ignore federal tax law and endorse candidates from the pulpit.

The Wall Street Journal reported that the ADF is interested in sparking a new test case to challenge portions of the Internal Revenue Code that bar non-profit groups from intervening in political campaigns. The group has even set aside a day for pastors to break the law – Sept. 28 – and claims to have ministers already lined up.

The ADF has in the past shown it has a tendency to stretch the truth, so it’s hard to know if its claims of dozens of ministers chomping at the bit to break the law is true. What is undoubtedly true, however, is that the organization’s actions are irresponsible.

Nothing in the U.S. Constitution requires that houses of worship be tax exempt. The practice of granting tax exemption is an old one, stretching back to pagan Rome (later Christian Rome) and continuing on through the Middles Ages right up to modern times.

Tax exemption is a lucrative benefit, and these days it is offered to secular nonprofits as well. All groups that accept it must meet various conditions. One of those is that tax-exempt organizations must refrain from meddling in partisan politics by trying to affect the outcome of elections. There is a different tax status for groups that want to do that type of work.

This regulation is in no way a restriction on free speech or freedom of religion. A pastor who feels compelled to jump head first into politics and tell his congregants whom to vote for (or against) retains the option of giving up tax exemption.

This is not good enough for groups like the ADF. They want pastors to enjoy the benefit of tax-exempt status without meeting its conditions. They are like spoiled children demanding dessert even though they’ve not finished their dinner. They should be sent to their rooms.

It’s likely that the ADF, an outfit  founded by James Dobson and other religious broadcasters who are adept at separating people from their cash, will use this stunt to raise lots of money and get its name in the media. But if the Religious Right’s legal eagles are serious about filing a new test case, they are wasting their time. We know how that will turn out: The ADF will lose.

The issue has already been litigated in the courts. In 1992, a Binghamton, N.Y., church ran a full-page advertisement in USA Today explaining why no Christian could vote for Bill Clinton and soliciting tax-deductible contributions to run the ad elsewhere. Americans United reported the church to the IRS, and the IRS pulled the congregation’s tax-exempt status.

Backed by TV preacher Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), the church sued to get its exemption back. The church lost in U.S. District Court and then lost at the appellate level.

In May of 2000, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled unanimously that the IRS’s actions did not violate the church’s rights. This was no liberal court engaging in “judicial activism.” The three judges were appointees of President Ronald W. Reagan, and the judge who wrote the lead opinion, James Buckley, is the brother of the late conservative commentator William F. Buckley. (The ACLJ did not appeal the case to the Supreme Court, probably fearing they would lose there as well.)

Courts will address the legal and constitutional issues of pulpit politicking. For those sitting in pews, the issues are more down to earth. Polls show that Americans overwhelmingly oppose pulpit-based politicking. The American public, it seems, knows what the political preachers of the Religious Right have forgotten: A religious leader’s job is to enrich people’s spiritual lives, not bombard them with partisan rants.

There is a certain arrogance about pulpit politicking. Some pastors seem to believe their political priorities should become the political priorities of all their congregants. But just because Pastor Smith is obsessed with stopping candidates who favor same-sex marriage and legal abortion does not mean his parishioners agree. Many of them may see other issues – the economy, the Iraq War, fuel prices, etc. – as more pressing.

Finally, there is the unassailable argument that alliances between houses of worship and partisan politics pretty much always end up hurting the church. Pastors surrender a lot when they align with political parties.

J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, put it well when he told the Associated Press that partisan activity can “compromise the essential calling to spread the Gospel.”

“The church can’t raise a prophetic fist at a candidate or at a party when it’s locked up in a tight bear hug with that candidate or party,” Walker said.

There is another threat as well: That embrace can become suffocating.

America’s religious leaders should reject the Alliance Defense Fund and its unethical, reckless stunt.