By Joseph L. Conn
It was no surprise when presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee wangled an invitation to speak at the late TV evangelist Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University.
Huckabee, a Southern Baptist preacher and former Arkansas governor, has counted on the support of evangelical Christians to boost his campaign for the White House, and the Lynchburg, Va., school is ground zero for the Religious Right. Any Republican candidate who hopes to win conservative Christian votes tries for an appearance at Liberty.
It was surprising, however, when after the Nov. 28 address, Liberty Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr. sent an e-mail to supporters endorsing Huckabee’s candidacy. Written on Liberty University letterhead and dubbed a “Liberty News Alert,” the Dec. 1 e-mail went to thousands on the “Falwell Confidential” contact list.
Wrote Falwell, “Recently, Governor Mike Huckabee called to brief me on the progress of his campaign for the presidency. I invited the Governor to speak to Liberty University students in Convocation on November 28. He graciously accepted.
“I was so impressed with the Governor’s sincerity and his positions on the issues that are important to conservative Christians,” Falwell continued, “that I personally endorsed Governor Huckabee before he left Lynchburg.”
Added the school official, “My father strongly supported Governor Huckabee when no one thought that he had any chance to succeed in the presidential race. I believe with all my heart that, if my father had witnessed Governor Huckabee’s surge in the polls and his ascension to first place in the Iowa polls, he would have endorsed Governor Huckabee without hesitation.”
What was surprising was not Falwell’s endorsement but the form it took. By sending out the endorsement on University letterhead in his official capacity as chancellor, Falwell clearly violated federal tax law.
As Americans United for Separation of Church and State noted in a complaint filed with the Internal Revenue Service, Liberty is a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) institution, and as such, it is barred from involvement in partisan politics.
Wrote Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn, “Falwell has the right, as a private individual, to endorse Huckabee. He does not have the right to use university channels, including an official announcement from the chancellor’s office on school letterhead, to disseminate that information.”
Lynn urged Lois G. Lerner, director of the IRS’s Exempt Organizations Division, to conduct an inquiry.
An IRS investigation of the Falwell family religious empire would not be a first.
Falwell Sr. was penalized by the IRS back in 1993. The tax exemption for his Old Time Gospel Hour ministry was revoked retroactively for the years 1986 and ’87 for involvement in partisan politics. The ministry also had to pay $50,000.
Given that track record, it is doubly surprising that Falwell Jr., an attorney, would be so careless as to wade into a new tax-exemption controversy.
Some observers think he was willing to take the risk because of the high stakes in the 2008 presidential election. President George W. Bush, a staunch Religious Right ally, will soon leave office, and leaders of the fundamentalist political movement are fearful that their eight-year run of extraordinary White House influence could come to an end.
Religious Right powerbrokers have had difficulty settling on a champion this year. The top Republican candidates all failed to excite them. Rudy Giuliani supports reproductive and gay rights and has been involved with widely publicized marital infidelities and other family angst. Mitt Romney has moved away from liberal positions he once held on abortion and gay rights, but he remains a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a denomination that many evangelicals consider a cult.
John McCain famously called Religious Right leaders “agents of intolerance” when he was running for president in 2000, and he pushed for the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reforms that many conservatives consider anathema. McCain has repented for the unflattering description, but he still lacks support in that camp.
Former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson had the enthusiastic backing of Southern Baptist Convention lobbyist Richard Land, but Thompson’s candidacy gained no traction and his stand on some social issues was less than perfect.
That leaves Huckabee. The former Arkansas governor would seem to be a natural for the Religious Right. He holds hard-line positions on abortion and gay rights, and his Southern Baptist clergy background gives him both speaking ability and theological appeal. But some movement leaders initially thought he lacked the money and moxie to wage a successful national campaign. Others questioned whether he was sufficiently right-wing on taxes and immigration or hawkish enough on foreign policy.
Faced with limited alternatives, however, Religious Right leaders in recent weeks have flocked to the Huckabee standard. On Nov. 27, his campaign announced the formation of a Faith and Values Coalition for Mike Huckabee.
Members included some 30 Religious Right leaders, including former Southern Baptist Convention presidents James Draper, Jack Graham and Jerry Vines, home-schooling guru and Patrick Henry College President Michael Farris, American Family Association Chairman Don Wildmon, Liberty Counsel Chairman Mat Staver and Vision America President Rick Scarborough.
Huckabee also has won the support of Tim LaHaye, a godfather of the Religious Right movement and millionaire co-author of the best-selling “Left Behind” novels. LaHaye, a founder of the secretive Council for National Policy, endorsed Huckabee Dec. 4 at a press conference at the candidate’s Des Moines campaign office.
According to The Washington Post, LaHaye said, “I urge all Christians…to go to your [Iowa] caucuses on Jan. 3 and vote for Mike Huckabee.” He called Huckabee “the most electable [candidate] who shares our values” and said he would restore our nation’s “commitment to biblical values.”
LaHaye has also been involved in a campaign scheme that raises issues of abuse of tax-exempt status. Religious Right political operative David Lane has organized “pastors’ policy briefings” in Iowa and New Hampshire.
The events, sponsored by the Iowa Renewal Project and the New Hampshire Renewal Project, supposedly were educational sessions devoted to “Rediscovering God in America.”
In fact, Huckabee was scheduled to speak at both gatherings in Dec-ember. He was the only candidate on the agenda, leading some observers to conclude that the sessions were partisan in character.
LaHaye and his wife Beverly (head of the Religious Right group Concerned Women of America) were listed as guests on the promotional material, along with “Christian nation” advocate David Barton and other Religious Right leaders. (In Iowa, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was scheduled to speak.)
In a special appeal to pastors to attend the events, LaHaye said, “America and our Judeo Christian heritage are under attack by a force that is more destructive than any threat America has faced since Adolf Hitler in 1934. Defeating the radical jihadists will require renewed resolve and spiritual rearmament by the evangelical pastors in America…. Because God has entrusted you to care for His flock, you are a critical component to reclaiming the centrality of God in American life and confronting the evil that faces us now.”
Huckabee’s campaign has also benefited from his personal appearances at churches and on religious television. Several congregations have turned over their pulpits to Huckabee for Sunday morning sermons.
TV preacher Kenneth Copeland brought Huckabee on his “Believer’s Voice of Victory” show as a guest for six straight days. Copeland insisted the appearances were non-political and were devoted to discussing character, not politics. (Copeland is being investigated by Sen. Charles Grassley as part of the senator’s inquiry into the possible misuse of tax-exempt donations by mega-ministries.)
The use of church connections to benefit presidential campaigns seems fairly common this year. Candidates on both sides of the aisle are exploiting religious language and church ties.
Democratic hopeful Barack Obama has made many appearances in church pulpits in key states and even sponsored a gospel concert tour in South Carolina to boost his candidacy. Hillary Clinton (and her husband Bill Clinton) have also made campaign appearances in churches.
Federal tax law flatly forbids churches and other tax-exempt institutions from endorsing candidates, but the legality of candidate appearances at houses of worship is less clear. If church officials allow all candidates the same access and do not give official endorsements, the appearances may pass muster.
Said Americans United’s Lynn, “It is imperative that our houses of worship not become houses of partisan politics. That’s the law; it’s also a matter of the integrity of religion and fairness in the democratic process. We’ll be watching closely as Campaign 2008 proceeds, and we will take action when necessary.”