December 2012 Church & State | Featured

A few days before the Nov. 6 election, Bishop David L. Ricken of Green Bay, Wisc., decided to offer his flock some advice. In a nutshell, it was this: Voting for Democrats could send you to hell.

Referring to the “intrinsically evil” practices of abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, human cloning and same-sex marriage, Ricken wrote, “Some candidates and one party have even chosen some of these as their party’s or their personal political platform.

“To vote for someone in favor of these positions,” he continued, “means that you could be morally ‘complicit’ with these choices which are intrinsically evil. This could put your own soul in jeopardy.”

Ricken’s missive also attacked federal regulations that make it easier for Americans to get access to birth control through health care plans, asserting that “these moves and others by the present government, will significantly alter and marginalize the role of religious institutions in our society.”

Coming as it did in a battleground state, Ricken’s letter was interpreted as a blindingly obvious attempt to push votes toward President Barack Obama’s Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

Ricken wasn’t alone. In the battleground of Pennsylvania, the state’s bishops joined forces to issue a letter commanding Catholics to base their votes on opposition to abortion, birth control and gay rights – an exhortation that would clearly benefit Romney.

Religion News Service reported that bishops in Peoria, Ill.; Juneau, Alas­ka; Colorado Springs, Colo.; New­ark, N.J.; Springfield, Ill. and Brooklyn, N.Y., issued similar missives.

The tactic failed. Obama won the general election by a comfortable electoral margin and out-performed Romney with Catholic voters. One reason it may have flopped so badly is that most Catholics don’t look to the bishops for voting advice. A poll issued shortly before the election showed that 86 percent of Catholics said they see no obligation to follow a cleric’s instructions on how to vote.

The bishops’ pro-Romney push was audacious and aggressive, and it had a counterpart across the theological divide: Religious Right groups – composed mostly of fundamentalist Protestants – went all out for the Republican candidate, mobilizing churches and issuing millions of biased “voter guides” that purported to compare the two candidates fairly but in reality promoted Romney.

In the end, it was not enough. Although national polls showed a tight race heading into the election, several crucial swing states could not be moved. Obama won in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Colorado, Michigan and other states that Religious Right groups had targeted.

In addition, the Religious Right and its allies in the Catholic hierarchy lost a number of ballot referenda. In Florida, voters trounced Amendment 8, a measure that would have erased church-state safeguards from the state constitution. In Maryland, Maine, Minnesota and Washington, voters supported marriage equality for same-sex couples. (See “Victory In Florida!,” page 10.)

The Religious Right faced crushing defeats in several closely watched congressional races.

In Missouri, U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, a long-time ally of the Religious Right, lost his attempt to unseat incumbent Sen. Claire McCaskill after he told a St. Louis television station that women rarely get pregnant after being raped.

Republican leaders urged Akin to drop out of the race, but he refused. He retained support from several Religious Right groups, and Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association went so far as to insist that Akin’s comments were “absolutely right.”

McCaskill defeated Akin 54 percent to 39 percent.

Indiana Senate candidate and Tea Party favorite Richard Mourdock lost to U.S. Rep. Joe Donnelly, 50 percent to 44 percent. Mourdock began sinking in the polls after he opposed abortion as an option for rape victims, saying God may have intended the pregnancy.

Political pundits have been ruminating over the results since Nov. 6. For Americans United, the main message was pretty simple: The Religious Right and its allies in the Catholic hierarchy took a serious beating.

“The bishops and the Religious Right bent every rule to try to impose their political will, but they failed bad­ly,” Americans United Executive Dir­­ec­tor Barry W. Lynn said in a Nov. 7 med­ia statement. “The American people clearly are not inclined to take voting orders from presumptuous preachers.”

It’s an especially bitter pill for these sectarian forces because they worked so hard to put Romney over the top. Romney, who held centrist views during his single term as Massachusetts governor, moved far to the right during the Republican presidential primary in order to contend with challengers like U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Romney’s rightward tilt mollified many foot soldiers of the Religious Right, who put aside their theological concerns about his Mormon faith and climbed aboard his political bandwagon.

Some evangelical and Catholic churches may have gotten too excited and engaged in activities of questionable legality. In late September, about 1,500 congregations took part in the Alliance Defending Freedom’s “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.” During the event, pastors were asked to endorse or oppose candidates from the pulpit, even though this is a violation of federal tax law. (Churches and other 501[c][3] nonprofits are not allowed to engage in electioneering.)

AU received a torrent of reports about church politicking and used its Project Fair Play to address the issue.

Several Catholic dioceses were accused of stepping over the line. In Peoria, Bishop Daniel Jenky issued a pre-election letter that angered many church-goers, who insisted that they don’t need or want clerics telling them how to vote.

The letter’s message was clear. Jenky blasted “the president of the United States” and “the current majority of the Federal Senate” for failing to respect the “religious liberty” interests of the Catholic Church.

He added a dire warning that those who vote for candidates who support reproductive rights face “God’s perfect judgment.”

“Today,” Jenky said, “the Catholic politicians, bureaucrats, and their electoral supporters who callously enable the destruction of innocent human life in the womb also thereby reject Jesus as their Lord. They are objectively guilty of grave sin. For those who hope for salvation, no political loyalty can ever take precedence over loyalty to the Lord Jesus Christ and to his Gospel of Life.”

Jenky called on parishioners to vote and to “be faithful to Christ and to your Catholic faith.”

Americans United wrote to the Internal Revenue Service on Nov. 6 and requested an investigation of Jenky, who issued a similarly partisan screed earlier this year. It was one of several IRS complaints AU filed during the election season.

On Sept. 19, AU asked the IRS to investigate Ridgway Christian Center/Praise Him Ministries in Colorado. The small ministry mailed a magazine to people in the state headlined, “Honor God! Love your country! VOTE REPUBLICAN!”

About a month later, AU requested that the IRS look into the activities of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, Md. The church’s pastor, a Religious Right favorite named Bishop Harry Jackson, opposed Obama’s reelection and endorsed a candidate for Con­gress as part of “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.” Jackson took pains to publicize his illegal actions and even appeared on a PBS news program to boast about the endorsements.

Not long after that, several Americans United supporters sent the organization information about a church in Leakey, Texas, that posted a marquee sign reading, “VOTE FOR THE MORMON, NOT THE MUSLIM! THE CAPITALIST, NOT THE COMMUNIST!”

AU formally requested an IRS investigation on Oct. 23.

It’s unclear how aggressively the IRS is following up on these complaints. Russell Renwicks, an IRS official in the Mid-Atlantic region, sparked a bit of an uproar when he told attendees at a conference that the IRS had suspended auditing houses of worship.

Renwicks was almost immediately contradicted by an IRS spokesman named Dean Patterson, who said that Renwicks “misspoke.” Patterson told the Associated Press that the tax agency “continues to run a balanced program that follows up on potential noncompliance.”

Some religious organizations tried to avoid a confrontation with the IRS by stopping just short of direct election endorsements. One incident involved the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA). On Oct. 11, Graham, who is 94, met with Romney, prayed with him and promised to help his candidacy.

Shortly after that, the BGEA, now led by Graham’s bombastic son Franklin, began placing full-page newspaper ads in national dailies as well as swing-state newspapers.

The ads featured a large photo of the senior Graham. The text read in part, “I strongly urge you to vote for candidates who support the biblical definition of marriage between a man and a woman, protect the sanctity of life and defend our religious freedoms.” (At the same time, material critical of Mormonism was scrubbed from the ministry website.)

Religious Right groups also worked hard  to build a ground game. Ralph Reed’s Faith & Freedom Coalition reportedly received a $10 million donation from right-wing donors to mobilize evangelicals for the GOP.

The ever-boastful Reed announced that he would produce 25 million voter guides and reach out to 117,000 churches. Critics were skeptical of the claim. Scholars estimate there are only 350,000 congregations total in the United States, and most of them would not be inclined to help Reed.

Indeed, Reed’s much-ballyhooed grassroots operation failed to sprout. Although exit polls showed Romney winning white evangelicals nationally by the large margin of 78 percent, evangelical turnout dropped in three key states – Ohio, Virginia and Florida.

In addition, Obama took the Cath­olic vote 50 percent to 48 percent and did well with Jews (69 percent to 30 percent) and the unaffiliated (70 percent to 26 percent).

In the waning days of the race, Republican strategists threw a Hail Mary pass and dispatched vice presidential hopeful U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) to rally the right-wing evangelical base one last time.

In a Nov. 4 phone call organized by Reed’s group, Ryan, a conservative Catholic popular with the Religious Right, stoked the flames of the culture war. He told participants that Obama is seeking “a path that grows government, restricts freedom and liberty and compromises those values – those Judeo-Christian, Western civilization values – that made us a great and exceptional nation in the first place.”

But voters were focused on jobs, not “Judeo-Christian values.” By an overwhelming margin, they told pollsters that the economy was their main concern, not the social issues that preoccupy the Religious Right.

Movement leaders reacted to the election results with dismay but resolve.  On Nov. 7, Gary Bauer, president of American Values, issued a bitter message asserting, “[Obama] has no mandate. In the months ahead, we will pray more, work harder and do everything possible to save this good and decent land.”

Tony Perkins, president of the Fam­ily Research Council, admitted that the results were a setback but vowed to fight on.

“Of course, there will be a temptation after this election for people to despair and disengage, believing that Am­erica is beyond hope,” Perkins wrote to supporters. “It isn’t. Despite the devastation of these last 24 hours, there is no reason to apologize, back away from, or rethink what we stand for.”

He insisted that the GOP consider “a renewed focus on the party’s conservative core.”

AU’s Lynn said he’s glad that heavy-handed efforts by ultra-conservative religious groups to dominate the democratic process failed.

But Lynn was quick to add that no one should assume that this defeat means that the Religious Right is going away. As a matter of fact, the long-time observer of faith and politics said he expects the Religious Right to come back into the political arena with rhetorical guns blazing.

The movement’s stinging defeat in 2012, Lynn said, will only spur theocratic groups to dig in, raise more money and carry forth the banner for the “culture war.”

“I think the battles over contraceptive coverage, marriage equality and other social issues are likely to heat up, not cool down,” Lynn said. “The Catholic bishops and their fundamentalist friends are increasingly desperate. They see their political clout slipping away, and they are going to do everything possible to implement their agenda now.”