As summer winds down and the election season begins in earnest, we can expect to see a proliferation of an unfortunate trend: houses of worship distributing biased “voter guides.”
Last week, the Rev. Angela Denker, a Lutheran pastor in Minnesota, wrote a column for Religion News Service recounting the first time she encountered one of these guides in 2008 while pastoring a church in Florida.
Denker pointed out that while the guides claimed to be non-partisan, its “veneer of nonpartisanship, however, was razor thin.” She noted that guides are now being sent to churches all over America, especially in swing states.
These guides haven’t gotten better over time. Produced by Christian nationalist groups like the Faith & Freedom Coalition, the Family Research Council and others, the guides are clearly stacked to promote conservative candidates.
In the 1990s, the Christian Coalition, a Religious Right group founded by TV preacher Pat Robertson, turned the production of the guides into an art form. The Coalition supposedly based the guides on questionnaires they mailed to candidates. But if a candidate didn’t fill it out – and most liberals and Democrats, knowing they would never get a fair shake from the organization, didn’t bother – the group would base the candidate’s answers on other factors.
One of the Coalition’s favorite tricks was to issue a guide with, say, 10 issues on it. The Republican candidate would have answers for all 10, and more often than not, they’d echo the far-right line. His or her Democratic opponent would have seven or eight answers with the remaining two or three – often the most hot-button issues – listed as “No Reply.” In fact, the Democrat hadn’t replied to any of the questions. The Christian Coalition simply made up answers for the seven or eight issues and listed “No Reply” for the others to make it look like the Democrat was too scared to answer or was trying to hide something.
The group used other tactics to slant the guides. Sometimes they would claim that candidates’ positions were based on votes in Congress, but the vote the group cited might have been on a procedural matter that failed to tell the whole story of why a candidate voted a certain way. (These guides, with their simplistic “Support” or “Oppose” dichotomy on complex issues, are not the place for nuance.)
Although the Christian Coalition collapsed some years ago, its sleazy tactics live on in the voter guides that are being produced by other Christian nationalist groups today.
In her column, Denker asks, “What would Jesus think of this mailing, of these pastors who have jumped fully on-board a deeply partisan agenda?”
That’s an important question for a religious leader to ask. In the secular realm, we might ask a different one: What does the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) think about material like this? These guides are clearly partisan in nature, and, under current law, houses of worship and other tax-exempt, nonprofit entities may not engage in partisan politicking. Doing so undermines both the integrity of our elections and the religious mission of houses of worship.
It’s time for the IRS to make it clear that these biased and partisan “voter guides” have no place in any house of worship.
P.S. You can learn more about this issue by visiting AU’s Project Fair Play site.