Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli has been a thorn in Americans United’s side for the past few years. A staunch ally of the Religious Right, Cuccinelli seems to have no problem using government to promote right-wing theology.
His 2010 memo on government-sponsored holiday displays was less than helpful. Americans United had to issue a statement warning that towns that took his advice without additional legal counsel might get sued.
Yesterday, Cuccinelli appeared at a Virginia Christian Alliance (VCA) breakfast in Fredericksburg to brief pastors on the law relating to political activity. He correctly reminded his audience that churches can’t endorse candidates, for example, and he distributed a handout reprinting some information made available by the Internal Revenue Service.
But Cuccinelli also blithely told the pastors that their churches can distribute voter guides – without warning them that most guides are produced by partisan operations intended to steer congregants toward certain candidates. Handing out biased guides is a clear violation of federal tax law.
Regardless of the specifics of his remarks, however, I had to wonder what Cuccinelli was doing there in the first place. Turns out he wanted to help the VCA, a hardball Religious Right outfit, prod churches to get more involved in political issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.
"You have a lot of freedom of action, and I would encourage you to use it," Cuccinelli said.
Since when is it the attorney general’s job to urge churches to dive into politics?
Not all churches want to be political. Pastors are aware that plenty of people go to religious services to hear talk about God, not electioneering. Congregants want to listen to a sermon, not a political rant.
Polls show that many people are tired of all of the political talk emanating from some pulpits. Americans are sharply divided over politics. The rise of the internet and social media have only given more outlets for a cacophony that now seems to run 24/7.
Many parishioners think a house of worship ought to be one place to get a respite from that, a place where Americans of different political persuasions can put aside the rancor and join together in a common purpose. For religious people, that purpose transcends the din of everyday political argument.
Yet Cuccinelli and his VCA allies would politicize our churches, turning them into just another front for the Religious Right’s misguided “culture war.” His clear message to pastors is that if you’re not talking about political issues in church, something is wrong and you’re not doing your job. (And, of course, the politics he wants them to espouse is his own. I doubt Cuccinelli would have appeared before an assembly of Unitarians, progressive Jews or liberal Protestants and delivered this speech.)
It’s arrogant. It’s misguided. It’s not what Americans want.
Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn told a Richmond TV station, “It is disturbing that the attorney general, even in the process of giving relatively good legal advice, manages to try to convince ministers they ought to be more religious or they ought to be fighting a different enemy. It’s really not appropriate for an elected official to start coaching people in the clergy about what they should or shouldn’t do in the middle of a church service.”
Here at Americans United, it gets our hackles up when religious groups demand that government enforce their particular theological notions.
But the concept cuts both ways. Government telling religion what to do isn’t so great either. Cuccinelli ought to stick to overseeing the laws of Virginia and let pastors decide for themselves how best to manage their pulpits.