Perilous Plot: Religious Right Leaders Scheme To Intervene In 2012 Presidential Election

When theocrats who head multi-million-dollar ministries and political operations meet behind closed-doors to select a candidate to implement their agenda, the rest of us would do well to be informed about that situation.

Reporters with the mainstream media sure love to write about the presidential horse race, don’t they? And I find it interesting how certain candidates suddenly become all the rage. How many stories about Michele Bachmann have you seen recently?

But the media, so intent on polls and personalities, is missing a huge story: The Religious Right’s attempt to pick our next president.

Luckily, Brian T. Kaylor is on the case. Kaylor, a professor of communication studies at James Madison University and an editor at Ethics Daily, a site run by moderate Baptists, has penned some interesting stories about top Religious Right leaders who have been plotting in the hopes of finding a candidate to beat President Barack Obama next year.

The collection, led by a Texas TV preacher named James Robison, takes its inspiration from a similar effort in 1980. Back then, Robison and other far-right fundamentalists had soured on President Jimmy Carter and were looking for a new champion. They found one in the person of a former actor and ex-California governor named Ronald W. Reagan.

Robison calls the current round of meetings “Leadership Summits.” The backers are a diverse lot; some are national names and some are not. They include Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, David Barton of WallBuilders, Maggie Gallagher of the National Organization for Marriage, Vonette Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ, TV preacher Kenneth Copeland and Bishop Harry Jackson, a Maryland minster known for anti-gay activism. (Robison has a full list of participants on his blog.)

What type of candidate do these Religious Right activists want? Someone who will restrict abortion, oppose full civil rights for gays and generally reflect a fundamentalist Christian perspective on both domestic and foreign affairs.

It’s the same Religious Right agenda we’ve seen for years with some Tea Party rhetoric thrown in. At the end of the day, these people believe they have the right to use the power of government to impose “morality” (that is, their religion) onto everyone.

The GOP field is large, and Kaylor reports that participants are divided over whom to support. However, with so many Texas pastors taking part, there has been speculation that the effort could become a vehicle for the presidential aspirations of Texas Gov. Rick Perry (who hasn’t yet announced that he’s running).

Whenever we write about meetings like this, some people wonder, what’s the big deal? Don’t pastors and other religious leaders have the right to get together and talk about who they would like to be president?

They do – but when theocrats who head multi-million-dollar ministries and political operations meet behind closed-doors to select a candidate to implement their agenda, the rest of us would do well to be informed about that situation. Our rights and freedoms are at stake.

The plan also raises questions of federal tax law. Many of the participants in these Leadership Summits head non-profit outfits. Once they’ve rallied around a candidate, what exactly do they plan to do to promote him or her? Will they use their tax-exempt ministries to intervene in partisan politics?

There is some evidence that they might. Robison told Kaylor that he doesn’t believe pastors should endorse candidates but then almost immediately undercut that assertion by insisting that pastors do have “the right to endorse” and said he “would never criticize” a minister for endorsing a candidate. He added that he would endorse a candidate “if I felt that I must.”

Personal endorsements are permitted, but ministers and heads of non-profits may not use institutional resources to endorse or oppose candidates. Robison is unclear on this important issue at best. His effort definitely bears watching.