Always beware of the Religious Right when it’s bearing gifts, as was the case at a recent conference attended by roughly 950 pastors in Austin, Texas.
The Rev. Don Wilkey, a Texas-based Baptist minister and Religious Right watchdog who writes for the blog “Talk to Action,” reported that not long ago, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee sent an open invitation to Texas pastors encouraging them to attend the Texas Renewal Project because America’s supposed “Christian heritage” is being attacked by a “force more destructive than any other threat America has faced in decades.”
Huckabee, a former GOP presidential candidate turned Religious Right hero, promised that the first 1,000 respondents would get a free hotel stay plus some meals. The pastors’ wives could even join at no additional cost!
This makes it seem like Huckabee and his allies were pretty desperate to get people to show up for this meeting, a fact that should raise a few eyebrows. Why the urgency? It seems this conference was mainly a scheme to convince pastors to dive into partisan politics ahead of the upcoming elections in November.
Wilkey said the gathering was headlined by Huckabee, Texas Attorney General Gregg Abbott’s wife, the Rev. Rafael Cruz (an evangelical pastor who is the father of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz) and disgraced “Christian historian” David Barton.
Cruz told the crowd that the tax code’s prohibition against campaign pulpit politicking by 501(c)(3) organizations, such as churches, is just an excuse some clergy use because they don’t want to take a stand on candidates. He also said that church-state separation is not found in the U.S. Constitution, and advised everyone to vote for Godly men rather than “village idiots,” Wilkey reported.
There was also a lot of the same old, tired bashing of President Barack Obama. Cruz called the administration “socialist” and Huckabee accused Obama of being anti-Israel. It’s a mystery why the Religious Right continues to attack Obama considering he cannot be reelected as president, but they really seem to enjoy beating dead horses.
Other notable Religious Right figures also made appearances. Liberty Counsel head Mat Staver, whose legal group is tied to Jerry Falwell Jr.’s Liberty University, made the case that pastors have nothing to fear by endorsing or opposing candidates for public office, even though the federal tax code strictly prohibits such activity. Wilkey said Staver told the assembly that pastors who defy the IRS have nothing to worry about because the law in this area is unenforceable.
In reality the law has been enforced before, most notably when the Church at Pierce Creek in Binghamton, N.Y., was stripped of its tax-exempt status after it ran newspaper ads telling people not to vote for Bill Clinton in 1992.
Of course Staver specifically denied that the church’s activities had ever gotten it into any trouble, Wilkey said. Apparently in Staver’s mind, a lengthy legal fight and eventual revocation of the church’s tax exemption don’t count as trouble.
Former U.S. Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) also tried to convince pastors to become politically active, reportedly telling the group that America’s troubles stem from church-state separation. Conveniently, Watts failed to mention who, exactly, was responsible for kicking God completely out of public life – probably because that hasn’t actually happened.
As for Barton, he was in his usual bad form. He claimed that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. cannot be referred to as “reverend” in public school history textbooks because of anti-religious sentiment – an absurd claim. Wilkey also said Barton tried to discredit the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1963 ruling in Abington School District v. Schempp, which struck down mandatory Bible reading in public schools. Barton said the high court’s decision argued that the Bible should be removed from public schools because it can hurt kids psychologically. That’s not the basis for the ruling.
It seems at times the speakers also drifted into some pretty wacky discussions. Barton said the Bible teaches that everyone should pay the same amount of taxes regardless of what they earn, a policy that, if adopted, would cripple the U.S. economy. Cruz called Ronald Reagan the best president since Abraham Lincoln. (Apparently, FDR gets no props for guiding the country through the Great Depression and World War II.)
The confab, which took place last Thursday and Friday, was orchestrated by the shadowy American Renewal Project (ARP). Last year, David Brody, chief political correspondent for TV preacher Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network, reported that ARP planned to target 12 swing states prior to the 2014 election. Although Texas was not among them, Brody also said ARP scheduled a series of “Pastors and Pews” events, like the one in Texas. A previous event was held in Des Moines, Iowa.
Wilkey’s report makes it clear that the Religious Right is spending serious time and money to make sure the 2014 elections go its way. These fundamentalists have taken major losses lately between Obama’s reelection in 2012 and expanded same-sex marriage rights in 2013 and 2014. They simply can’t handle another loss.
This movement is not above urging pastors to break the law by politicizing their pulpits. The lesson is clear: The Religious Right believes the next election is nothing less than a fight for the nation’s soul – and they will do whatever it takes to be ready for battle.