The press release, at first glance, looked like any one of hundreds that flood forth during presidential campaigns.
“Mike Huckabee Wins,” it exulted. “Join A Winner And Let’s Take Back The White House.”
Noting Republican presidential candidate Huckabee’s strong showing in the Aug. 11 Ames, Iowa, straw poll, the release urged voters to “consider getting behind Mike and helping him all you can.”
But the press release, emailed Aug. 12, wasn’t from the Huckabee campaign or some supportive political action committee. It was from the First Southern Baptist Church of Buena Park, an Orange County, Calif., congregation.
The church’s pastor, Dr. Wiley S. Drake, used his official position and the resources of the church to endorse his favored candidate in the 2008 race.
“After very serious prayer and consideration,” said Drake, in the press release, “I announce today that I am going to personally endorse Mike Huckabee. I ask all of my Southern Baptist brothers and sisters to consider getting behind Mike and helping him all you can. First of all pray and ask God, what should I do to put feet to my prayers.
“Do what God tells you to do,” he continued. “I believe God has chosen Mike for such an hour, and I believe of all those running Mike Huckabee will listen to God.”
The next day, Drake took the endorsement one step further, using his church-based internet radio program to reaffirm his support for Huckabee.
“I believe that Mike Huckabee is, indeed, a man I can endorse,” the church leader insisted. “As second vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention, I put out a press release to that effect…. I want a man that’s going to be in the White House that will not only answer to the party, answer to the constituents, but in the final answer, will answer to Almighty God.
“Mike Huckabee is a son of God,” he continued. “He loves the Lord, and I believe, no matter what the constituents say or the party says, he is a man of integrity who fears God, and in the finality of things, will say, ‘Okay, God, what do you want me to do?’ And I believe he will listen to God.”
Drake featured Huckabee campaign staffer Eric Woolson on the program, and Woolson promised to arrange an interview with the candidate.
It’s hard to imagine a clearer violation of federal tax law. The IRS Code forbids churches, charities and other 501(c)(3) nonprofits to intervene in elections on behalf of candidates.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State quickly swung into action.
In an Aug. 14 complaint filed with the IRS, Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn asked for an immediate investigation.
“Although Drake may express his personal views on political candidates,” Lynn wrote, “federal tax law prohibits such endorsements by religious leaders acting in their capacities as officials of non-profit religious organizations. The IRS has repeatedly warned non-profits not to use organizational resources to intervene in elections.
“Use of church letterhead to endorse a candidate for public office,” Lynn continued, “appears to violate the provisions of federal tax law that prohibit non-profit intervention in political campaigns. Drake’s endorsement of a candidate on a church-based radio show raises the same concerns.”
Concluded Lynn, “I urge you to take action promptly to address this issue.”
Americans United announced its IRS complaint in a nationally circulated press release. That’s when things really got interesting.
Drake, instead of trying to explain or justify his misuse of a tax-exempt ministry, launched a prayer war against Americans United.
In an Aug. 14 email appeal to his supporters, the pastor called for “imprecatory prayers” (curses) asking God to destroy Americans United and its staff.
“In light of the recent attack from the ememies [sic] of God,” he wrote, “I ask the children of God to go into action with Imprecatory Prayer. Especially against Americans United for Seperation [sic] of Church and State…. Specifically target [AU communications staffers] Joe Conn and Jeremy Learing [sic]. They are those who lead the attack.
“John Calvin gave the church it’s [sic] marching orders from Scripture,” Drake continued. “The righteous have dominion, but only through imprecatory prayer against the ungodly.”
In a section of the email headlined “How to Pray,” Drake pulled passages from the Old Testament that his followers could use to guide their prayers.
“Let his days be few; and let another take his office,” quoted Drake from Psalms 109. “Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow. Let his children be continually vagabonds, and beg: let them seek their bread also out of their desolate places…. Let there be none to extend mercy unto him: neither let there be any to favour his fatherless children.”
Concluded Drake, “Please join us, with Bible in hand, and let us do battle against the enemies of God.”
Drake’s appeal drew a curt response from AU’s Lynn.
In a press release, Lynn said, “Instead of addressing our concerns of illegally melding religion and partisan politics, Dr. Drake has launched an outlandish attack on us. Calling for curses on us might distract Drake’s supporters, but it won’t help him with the IRS. I trust the tax agents will investigate.”
Drake’s inflammatory rhetoric sparked a wave of media interest, with coverage by National Public Radio, the Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press. In interviews with reporters, the combative preacher defended his use of ministry resources for political purposes and stood behind his imprecatory prayer appeal.
Claiming that he was “simply doing what God told me to do,” Drake told the Times, “God says to pray imprecatory prayer against people who attack God’s church. The Bible says if anybody attacks God’s people, [Old Testament king] David said this is what will happen to them…. Children will become orphans and wives will become widows.”
Drake brushed aside his apparent violation of federal tax law.
“I have never worried about the IRS,” he told the newspaper. “They don’t scare me. I don’t give a rip about the IRS. I don’t believe in the separation of church and state, and I believe the IRS should stay out of church business.”
Bloggers had a field day with Drake’s antics.
Mainstream religious voices on the Web denounced his misguided theological perspective. Oklahoma Baptist minister (and Americans United Trustee) Bruce Prescott countered Drake’s curses with a call for prayers of blessings on Americans United and all persons who fight for religious liberty. Norman Jameson, who blogs at the Web site of The Biblical Recorder, the weekly Baptist newspaper in North Carolina, called Drake’s “hateful, vindictive, graceless plea” an “echo from Baghdad.”
“Ironically,” asserted Jameson, “Drake’s plea for you to join him in cursing our brothers who are trying to keep this nation safe from wannabe Christian imams demonstrates exactly why we need Americans United.”
The Carpetbagger Report, a popular political blog, lampooned Drake’s imprecatory prayer appeal and worried tongue-in-cheek that God might strike down the wrong person since Drake misspelled the name of Jeremy Leaming, one of the targeted AU staffers.
Fred Clarkson, a veteran observer of the Religious Right, noted at Talk2Action that Drake has a disturbing history of relationships with the Army of God, a violent anti-abortion group. Others noted that Drake has accepted a gold watch and other gifts from the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, a religious-political leader who claims to have been sent by God to complete the failed mission of Jesus Christ.
Presidential candidate Huckabee offered a mixed response to Drake.
Campaign spokesperson Alice Stewart told the Associated Press that the campaign had not coordinated with Drake.
“We certainly don’t condone the evil comments he’s made,” she said.
But Huckabee, a Southern Baptist minister and former governor of Arkansas who registers meager support from voters in presidential polls, told the Boston Globe that he is “not in a position to disavow anyone’s support.” He said he does disavow Drake’s approach, adding that he’s far more interested in “the saving of souls, rather than the damning of souls.”
Drake’s colleagues in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) took the Pontius Pilate approach to the whole affair, declining to approve or disapprove of Drake’s violent invocation.
Sing Oldham, an SBC spokesman, told the Associated Press, that the denomination “exercises no ecclesiastical authority over any individual Baptist or any local church.”
“Thus,” he said, “any Baptist, as an individual, may make pronouncements which reflect his or her thoughts.” He said the 16-million-member denomination has not adopted any guidelines on imprecatory prayer.
Drake’s term as the SBC’s second vice president ended in June, and he has already announced plans to run for president of the fundamentalist-dominated group next year.
AU’s Lynn said Drake’s prayer campaign won’t deter Americans United from aggressively pursuing IRS action against those who misuse churches for partisan ends. Through its Project Fair Play, AU educates religious leaders about federal tax law and reports violations to the IRS.
“Our Project Fair Play is already up and running,” he said. “We urge all Americans to be on the alert for improper mixing of religion and partisan politics. Let us know if it happens in your community.”