TV preacher and Religious Right leader Jerry Falwell has had a hard time maintaining credibility and political influence in recent years.
His Moral Majority once served as a catalyst for the Religious Right political movement. But since the group's closing over a decade ago, Falwell has been better known to most Americans as the distributor who peddled scurrilous anti-Clinton videos, the religious leader who believes the Antichrist is a Jewish man living in the world today and the television critic who warned parents about Tinky Winky, the allegedly gay Teletubby. Even within the Religious Right, where he was once among the movement's most important leaders, Falwell has been eclipsed by figures such as Pat Robertson and James Dobson.
Falwell, however, has a plan to change all that, one that not only gives the TV preacher a chance to increase his own power, but a scheme he believes will help propel Republican George W. Bush into the White House.
The project is called "People of Faith 2000." Through the new initiative, Falwell claims he will register 10 million religious conservatives to vote who have never participated in an election before. Falwell has projected a budget of $18.6 million for the crusade.
At an April 14 press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Falwell announced that the project is "a seven-month, non-partisan campaign" designed to mobilize millions of religious voters. "It is the intention of People of Faith 2000," Falwell observed, "to awaken large numbers of those discouraged and frustrated believers to the urgency of stepping forward this year, and participating in what may be the most important congressional and presidential election in modern times."
Specifically, Falwell intends to send 28 million direct-mail packages with voter registration materials--and a fund-raising pitch--to pastors and church members nationwide. By taking advantage of the streamlining of the voter registration process made possible under 1993's federal "motor voter" law, Falwell intends to collect "pledge cards" and help register those who wish to take part in the process.
Falwell said this project is necessary because of the misguided direction he believes the nation has been taking.
"[O]ver the last 35 years, the left-wing elite has been engaged in a campaign to purge traditional Judeo-Christian values from public life in America," Falwell said in promotional materials on the project's website. "And the deafening silence of America's pulpits and religious leaders has helped this unconstitutional effort to enjoy much success. The time has come to awaken from our slumber and take a bold stand before all our constitutional rights are all stripped away. People with deeply-held spiritual values and beliefs should not be treated as 'second-class' citizens."
At his press conference, Falwell insisted that People of Faith 2000 is not a separate organization, but rather "a spiritual and political movement of millions of people of faith." As he explained it, the effort is a project of his new tax-exempt organization, the Liberty Alliance Institute, a spin-off of his tax-exempt Jerry Falwell Ministries.
The project has already been endorsed by many activists who share Falwell's agenda. People of Faith 2000's National Advisory Council includes Dr. Paige Patterson, president of the Southern Baptist Convention: Janet Parshall, talk-show host and chief spokesperson for the Family Research Council; author and Religious Right godfather Tim LaHaye; Mathew Staver, president of Liberty Counsel, a Religious Right legal group; conservative talk-show host Armstrong Williams; Lutheran pastor Laurence L. White of Houston; Michael Johnston, president of Kerusso Ministries, a group that offers homosexuals "a way out" of the "gay lifestyle;" and Rabbi Daniel Lapin, a right-wing activist and regular speaker at the Christian Coalition's "Road to Victory" Conference.
With a line-up like that, Falwell had reason to give a confident impression at the kickoff for his latest initiative. One obstacle, however, threatens to derail the project, an impediment that may be insurmountable: federal tax law.
The law prohibits tax-exempt institutions from conducting voter registration drives--or any other political activity--in a partisan manner. According to Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a watchdog group and longtime critic of Falwell, People of Faith 2000 is a shady political scheme.
"Jerry Falwell is abusing tax-exempt religious ministries to push a partisan political agenda," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "This project is not a noble campaign designed to simply register more Americans to vote. It is a highly partisan drive intended to help elect Republicans in the November elections."
It is the drive's partisanship that led Americans United to host its own media event at the National Press Club, held down the hall just minutes after Falwell's event ended, to announce the filing of a formal complaint with the Internal Revenue Service. AU's Lynn asked the tax agency to investigate Falwell's project immediately for using his tax-exempt religious ministry to intervene in the November elections.
"I am well aware that houses of worship and other non-profit organizations may conduct voter registration drives," Lynn said in a letter to IRS Commissioner Charles Rossotti. "But I am also aware that the IRS has stated that non-profit organizations may not conduct voter registration drives in a partisan manner. Falwell's plan has a clear partisan bias, as he apparently intends to register only conservative voters and has admitted that the entire scheme is designed to help elect Bush."
To offer support for his claim, Lynn presented quotes from Falwell himself, because as Lynn explained, "Falwell's own words betray his partisan motive."
Repeatedly in recent months, Falwell has told reporters that People of Faith 2000 is not only motivated by partisanship, but is being created in large part to help advance Bush's candidacy and the campaigns of other Republicans.
In an interview with USA Today published March 23, Falwell clearly explained the purpose of People of Faith 2000. "It is my experience that most people of faith in this country vote pro-family, pro-life, and that will mean George W. Bush," Falwell said in describing the importance of his project. "If I'm right, the Republicans are going to feel a very positive result from this from the top to the bottom of the ticket."
Falwell has also boasted in a statement distributed by Jerry Falwell Ministries that this project will closely mirror the work he undertook in the early 1980s. "Between 1979 and 1984, we registered over 8.5 million new voters through the churches and religious organizations and re-activated millions more back into the political arena," Falwell observed. "As a result, Ronald Reagan was elected to two terms in the White House and a new more conservative Congress was swept into power."
Falwell told Beliefnet.com, an online religion news website, that he introduced his election-year project quickly because "another four years of Clinton-Gore would devastate this country."
Falwell's enthusiasm for the Bush campaign has been a regular theme for him. In his March 3 Falwell Confidential fax newsletter, Falwell told supporters, "[W]e must have unity if we hope to win in November. The goal, as we all know, is to ensure that Al Gore does not sit in the Oval Office come January." On March 16, he told a national television audience on MSNBC he supports Bush "all the way." While giving his opinion of the Log Cabin Republicans (a gay GOP group), Falwell told CNN March 5, "I think that they're living an immoral lifestyle, but I'd much rather they vote for George Bush than Al Gore."
Even at the National Press Club event where Falwell was touting the alleged non-partisan qualities of his project, he couldn't help but express disdain for Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore.
In response to a question about the lack of religious diversity reflected in People of Faith 2000, Falwell said he was only reaching out to people of Judeo-Christian backgrounds, concluding, "I'll leave the Buddhists for Mr. Gore." He also told reporters, "You know and I know that the churches and pastors who allow me to assist them in this effort probably are not connected closely with Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson or Al Gore."
For AU's Lynn, Falwell's tactics are ethically and legally dubious.
"I want to make something very clear: Jerry Falwell--identified only as a pastor and civic leader--has every right to endorse George Bush or anyone else for president," Lynn said at AU's briefing. "However, the shady shell game he has been playing since word of this project first leaked out a few weeks ago corrupts the very purpose of tax-exempt ministries.
"My advice today to churches," he continued, "is that they toss any materials supplied by Falwell in the trash can. If they listen to Falwell, they risk becoming ensnared in a partisan bear trap and could jeopardize their own tax-exemption. They cannot use materials prepared by a partisan operation in their own non-profit churches. The motive to prepare this voter registration material is so tainted by Republican partisanship that any materials born of the effort would corrupt any sanctuary in which they were deposited."
Adding credence to the charges of partisan bias, Falwell has contracted with Richard Viguerie, one of the leading Republican direct-mail fund-raisers in the nation. (Viguerie was also named to the project's advisory council.) Falwell's choice of direct-mail experts is significant because the IRS examines which groups are targeted when determining whether the registration drives are partisan.
Lynn went on to say that before People of Faith 2000 registers a single person to vote, the project may have run afoul of tax law. Falwell has acknowledged that he has already raised $1 million for the campaign from business interests that have been given a tax deduction because the money went to Falwell's tax-exempt organization.
"This is outrageous conduct," said Lynn. "Tax-deductible donations to a religious ministry are not supposed to be diverted to partisan political projects. This money shuffling is irresponsible by any ethical standard."
Criticism of People of Faith 2000 was not limited to AU's Lynn. Syndicated columnist Cal Thomas, himself a Christian conservative and former co-worker at Falwell's Moral Majority, also criticized the effort.
"At a time when the Christian world is focusing on the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth and the meaning of those events, the Rev. Jerry Falwell is again focusing on politics," Thomas wrote in a column the week after Falwell's press conference.
"On his webpage, Mr. Falwell claims that 'people of faith are persona non grata in the American political process,'" Thomas added. "No, they're not. They just shouldn't expect to constantly run the Republican Party to which his wing of the church has attached itself."
Along with Thomas, there are many who are skeptical about Falwell's ability to register 10 million new voters, and raise the money necessary for such an undertaking. The skepticism seems understandable in light of Falwell's inexhaustible fondness for announcing new groups and projects, including the "I Love America" Political Action Committee in 1984, the Liberty Foundation in 1987, Mission America in 1994 and the National Committee for the Restoration of the Judeo-Christian Ethic in 1997, all of which either ended in failure or faded into obscurity. (See "Falwell Follies," page 7.)
Observers, however, note an important difference between this project and the others: the $1 million he apparently has already raised.
Whether Falwell can translate initial financial success into actually registering voters remains to be seen. But with or without an extravagant budget, People of Faith 2000 may not have the law on its side.
Falwell's project bears a striking resemblance to a voter registration drive of a different tax-exempt group 16 years ago, an election-year project that led to the revocation of that group's tax exemption.
The group, whose name is not available due to the confidentiality of IRS investigations, began a voter registration project in 1984, distributing materials to help elect conservatives to national office. According to a technical advice memorandum prepared by the IRS from September 1990, the organization sought to register conservative voters in advance of the 1984 election. Similar to Falwell's intentions, this organization stated in advance that its goal was to register 1 million conservative voters.
The group's effort did not mention any candidate by name (nor does Falwell's), but instead it sought to "make sure all unregistered voters who agree with conservative values are registered." The IRS determined that the 501(c)(3) group intervened unlawfully in a political campaign and lost its tax exemption.
"The IRS revoked the charity's tax-exempt status because it was clear that the group wanted to reelect Ronald Reagan in l984--even though Reagan's name did not appear in their material," noted AU's Lynn. "Falwell is trying to do the same thing 16 years later and should not be allowed to get away with it."
If punished for transgressions surrounding this project, it will not be the first time Falwell will have fought the law and lost. In fact, Falwell has a history of ignoring federal tax law prohibitions concerning churches and politics. The IRS punished Falwell's Old Time Gospel Hour in 1993 when funds were illegally funneled from Falwell's group to a political action committee. Falwell was forced to pay $50,000 and the Old Time Gospel Hour's tax-exempt status was pulled retroactively for 1986-87.
Falwell also ran into trouble in 1987 when the Federal Election Commission fined him for illegally transferring $6.7 million intended for his religious ministry to political action committees.
With a record like this one, AU's Lynn finds it surprising that Falwell is now giving churches his opinions about the propriety of People of Faith 2000.
"No religious leader should take legal advice from someone who obviously has trouble following the law himself," Lynn concluded. "Falwell may be desperate to regain political power and influence, but using religious groups and ignoring tax law is the wrong way to do it."
Whether the People of Faith 2000 campaign is successful or not, the project's existence is symptomatic of the Religious Right's intense interest in the outcome of the November elections.
Like Falwell, other Religious Right figures are aggressively gearing up for this election, and with the White House, control of both houses of Congress and the balance of power at the U.S. Supreme Court all up for grabs, leaders are viewing the race as the opportunity to shape public policy for many years to come.
Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition continues to raise funds through its "21 Victory" campaign, and Robertson has announced that the Coalition will distribute upwards of 70 million voter guides in churches before the election.
Michael Farris, a Virginia-based Religious Right activist and leader in the home school movement, has taken a pragmatic approach to the election. His Madison Project has spearheaded a coalition of Religious Right leaders who interviewed Republican presidential candidates and gave Bush their stamp of approval. Farris went so far as to tell the Washington Times that Bush could "become the leader of the conservative movement."
Only James Dobson, the no-compromise Focus on the Family firebrand, has threatened the Bush campaign, telling reporters that the Texas governor will lose his support--and implicitly that of his millions of followers--if the GOP vice presidential nominee is pro-choice on abortion.
With the active involvement of so many heavyweights, AU's Lynn believes voters will see more partisan political activity than ever before from the Religious Right.
"Many Religious Right leaders are still disappointed by election defeats in 1998 and '96," concluded Lynn. "I expect Falwell and his allies to pull out all the stops, regardless of what federal tax law prohibits and do everything possible to influence the outcome of this election. If they do, we plan to let law enforcement authorities know about it."