February 2004 Church & State | Editorial

Religion is suddenly all the rage in Campaign 2004.

Democratic candidate Howard Dean says he intends to talk more about his faith on the campaign trail. The former Vermont governor says he was uncomfortable talking about his beliefs in the past but changed his mind after campaigning in South Carolina, where few keep their light hidden under a bushel.

Meanwhile, President George W. Bush has never been shy about discussing his faith. He does it all of the time. Bush even managed to bring up religion in December after U.S. troops in Iraq announced the capture of Saddam Hussein.

The United States is an overwhelmingly religious nation, and some have speculated that all of this "God talk" springing from the mouths of politicians may have more to do with winning votes than saving souls.

Perhaps. The voters are competent to make that determination for themselves. In an election year, we would be happy if those seeking public office would refrain from attacking one another\'s beliefs and using faith as just another political weapon.

That\'s what the politicians should do. Here\'s what America\'s religious leaders should do: respect the laws of the land and refrain from intervening in partisan campaigns.

The Internal Revenue Service Code is clear on this question. Groups that hold a non-profit, 501(c)(3) status may not endorse or oppose candidates for public office. This prohibition includes, but is not limited to, houses of worship. A variety of groups must abide by it, some religious and some not.

Most American clergy obey this regulation. They don\'t want to bring partisan politicking into the pulpit. These religious leaders may encourage voting as a civic duty and discuss compelling moral and social issues, but they draw the line at handing down lists of endorsements.

Unfortunately, every election year a few religious leaders do step over the line. They allow candidates to come into their pulpits and shill for votes. They distribute biased "voter guides" that are obviously stacked to favor certain candidates. Some pastors even endorse candidates or advise congregants not to vote for certain office-seekers.

There is simply no excuse for this type of behavior. The "no partisan politicking" rule has been part of federal tax law for nearly half a century. Every election year, the IRS issues a reminder about it to non-profits. Legal advisors to many religious groups send out their own reminders. In short, claiming ignorance of the law is not convincing.

Religious leaders must also be careful about so-called "experts" peddling bad information. Religious Right groups like TV preacher Pat Robertson\'s American Center for Law and Justice are urging houses of worship to play a dangerous game. The group claims that churches can distribute Christian Coalition "voter guides" because they are unbiased voter education material.

This simply is not true. Coalition voter guides are stacked to support certain candidates backed by the Robertson-founded political group. A few years ago, in a legal case examining political activity by the Coalition, a federal court noted that the group\'s guides are obviously designed to promote certain candidates over others. Churches may not distribute this type of material.

Religious leaders should be wary of any material produced by outside organizations. The Christian Coalition, for example, has been organized as a 501 (c)(4) organization. Groups with that designation are permitted to engage in some partisan political activity, while 501(c)(3) groups are not. If a house of worship distributes partisan material, it will pay the penalty for that not the group that produced the guide.

Aside from legal considerations, there are pragmatic reasons why houses of worship should be leery of politicking. Most people go to religious services for advice and support on spiritual matters, not for lists of political endorsements. Polls show that overwhelming numbers of Americans oppose pulpit politicking. Such activity distracts churches from their true mission and can divide congregations.

Nevertheless, Religious Right congressional allies are trying to change the law. U.S. Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.) has introduced what he calls the "Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act."

This misnamed legislation is profoundly misguided. Jones frequently claims inaccurately that pastors are barred from speaking out on important issues of the day. In fact, as Jones surely must know, the IRS provision bans only church endorsements of candidates. Discussion of issues is broadly protected.

But time and time again, Jones and his supporters have raised this bogus claim, trying to scare pastors into believing that they can\'t address important issues from the pulpit. It\'s fair to ask if the Jones bill is such a good idea why do its supporters have to resort to distortion and fear-mongering tactics to promote it?

Truth can triumph over misinformation in the end, but only if we do a better job of helping religious leaders understand this issue and what the law allows and what it does not. Religious Right groups have deliberately sought to confuse the issue. In this election year, we should all do our part to set the record straight.