Family Research Council (FRC) staff members, including President Tony Perkins, have been traveling around the country in two buses, ostensibly to talk to voters about the importance of “values” (right-wing ones, anyway) during this election year.
This past weekend, the FRC’s “values bus” was in North Dakota. Why that state, you might ask? Well, they weren’t there to tour Lawrence Welk’s birthplace. The bus went there because North Dakota it is home to a hotly contested U.S. Senate race. Heidi Heitkamp, a Democratic incumbent, is in a tight race for reelection, and FRC wants to help her Republican opponent.
The FRC and other Religious Right groups are furious with Heitkamp for voting against Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court. That explains what the FRC was doing in Bismarck yesterday.
The FRC’s buses are sponsored by an entity called “FRC Action.” It’s not a political action committee, but it holds a type of tax status that allows it to be more explicitly partisan than a house of worship would be. Yet in some states, including North Dakota, they've been holding events in churches.
Houses of worship and other tax-exempt nonprofits are prohibited from intervening in political campaigns by endorsing or opposing candidates for public office. This is due to language found in the Johnson Amendment, which became part of federal law in 1954.
President Donald Trump has been claiming that he did away with the Johnson Amendment, but this yet another of his falsehoods. He issued an executive order full of verbiage that didn’t really do anything. The Johnson Amendment is a federal law. It would take an act of Congress to overturn or modify it. It’s not something Trump can do by executive order.
FRC Action would argue that all it’s doing is urging people to pray and vote on election day. Yet a look at the schedule shows a series of visits in states with tight Senate races, including Indiana, Missouri, Texas, Tennessee and Wisconsin. The bus also made a series of stops at churches in Ohio. The Senate race there is not particularly competitive, but a gubernatorial race is neck and neck, and Mike DeWine, a social conservative and Religious Right favorite, is the GOP’s nominee.
I’m thinking this is probably not just a coincidence.
FRC Action holds many of its events in conservative churches, although some are actually being held in Republican Party field offices and at other party gatherings. In North Carolina, the bus tour participated in a rally for one Republican congressional candidate, included another in a “regional pastors briefing” and boasted of a Republican state Senate candidate’s presence as another event.
The organization is trying to help Republicans get elected. That much is clear.
Here’s something else that is clear: The Johnson Amendment is designed to protect the integrity of nonprofits by keeping them focused on their missions. When it comes to houses of worship, that mission is transcendental and spiritual, not worldly and partisan. The law wisely prevents our religious communities from being turned into cogs in some politician’s political machine.
That’s one good reason why houses of worship should refrain from signing up for FRC Action’s crusade to help keep Republicans in power. Here’s another reason: It’s illegal.