Pulpits Aflame With Politics?: Religious Right Prepares For 2012 Elections

Politicizing churches is wrong. It’s not what Americans want – and it’s illegal.

I’m often asked what the Religious Right is up to these days. Some people, noting the death of the Rev. Jerry Falwell in 2007 and the aging of leaders like Pat Robertson and Donald Wildmon, assume the movement is slowing down.

Unfortunately, that’s just not the case.

Religious Right groups and their allies in the Tea Party are giddy from their electoral successes in 2010. They’re gearing up for another round in 2012. Much of what is happening is occurring below the radar and doesn’t necessarily capture headlines. But it’s very real.

Anyone who believes the Religious Right is old news needs to read yesterday’s Los Angeles Times story by reporters Tom Hamburger and Matea Gold. It’s an excellent overview of how theocratic groups are gearing up for 2012.

Consider Iowa, for example – a state that plays an important role in the presidential election process. The Religious Right is strong in Iowa and scored an important victory in 2010 when it mobilized a church-based campaign to remove three justices from the Iowa Supreme Court. Fundamentalist church leaders were angry that the state high court had voted to approve same-sex marriage. They used a retention election (usually a quiet, non-controversial affair) to kick the judges out.

In the wake of a victory like that, we can be assured that the Religious Right won’t be sitting out 2012 in Iowa – or in other states.

As Hamburger and Gold note, “a growing movement of evangelical pastors…are jumping into the electoral fray as never before, preaching political engagement from the pulpit as they mobilize for the 2012 election.”

They continue, “This new activism has substantial muscle behind it: a cadre of experienced Christian organizers and some of the conservative movement's most generous donors, who are setting up technologically sophisticated operations to reach pastors and their congregations in battleground states.”

The Times quotes Rob Stein, a Democratic Party strategist, who remarked, “The Christian activist right is the largest, best organized and, I believe, the most powerful force in American politics today. No other political group comes even close.”

The emphasis goes far beyond Iowa. Religious Right strategists are targeting a number of swing states for 2012. They include Ohio, Florida, Virginia, Colorado and others.

Backed with cartloads of cash from national far-right organizations, local groups of fundamentalist pastors are using new technologies to spread a partisan political message. I saw evidence of this myself in June at Ralph Reed’s Faith & Freedom Coalition meeting, where right-wing political strategists talked openly about ways to harness the power of churches and church-goers to get the “right” candidates elected.

Every time Americans United raises this issue, critics carp that we’re trying to stop conservative evangelicals from taking part in politics.

It’s not true. We acknowledge that everyone has the right to participate in politics. But, when theocratic groups use big bucks from shadowy donors and far-right fat cats to forge churches into a partisan political machine with the aim of enacting legislation to make a narrow form of fundamentalism the law of the land, people deserve to know about that.

Secondly, some of the activities being undertaken here may be illegal. Houses of worship are free to speak out on political and social issues, but – as tax-exempt organizations -- they are not permitted to become political action committees that seek to elect (or defeat) certain candidates. Under federal tax law, no non-profit organization can do that.

Yet that is exactly what’s happening in some churches. In 2010, several Iowa churches openly organized campaigns to remove the Iowa Supreme Court justices from office. Every fall, the Alliance Defense Fund, a Religious Right legal group, prods pastors to flagrantly violate the law by using their pulpits to endorse or oppose candidates.

Politicizing churches is wrong. It’s not what Americans want – and it’s illegal. Americans United won’t be intimidated. When we see that the Religious Right is up to no good, we’ll blow the whistle.

Be assured that Americans United will continue to speak out against church-based electioneering right up until Election Day 2012.