The letter that arrived in Americans United’s office in September was quite blunt.
“We don’t need your stinking liberal threats about what the church can say and not say,” it read. “Go take a flying leap off a short pier, you commie bastard!”
The missive came in response to a mailing Americans United sent to 60,000 houses of worship nationwide, reminding them that they must follow the law and refrain from endorsing or opposing candidates from the pulpit. (See “Dear Religious Leader,” October 2012 Church & State.)
Some religious leaders were grateful for the AU advisory.
“Many thanks for the letter of caution concerning houses of worship stating political opinions when it comes to voting,” wrote one New Albany, Ohio, pastor. “I have a hard time explaining to people that we cannot have an opinion. As senior pastor, I can have a personal opinion – even put a sign in my yard if I wish (I do not – I do not need to alienate half of our members) – but, as a church, we cannot have an opinion. Your letter will be shared with many…. So, I just wanted to say a huge thank you, and please keep us on your mailing list.”
As these responses indicate, the issue of religion and politics remains combustible.
It was especially so during this campaign season. With President Barack Obama considered vulnerable due to a weak economy and high unemployment rate, Religious Right groups and the Roman Catholic hierarchy pulled out all the stops to put Republican nominee Mitt Romney over the top – at times engaging in unlawful activities.
This issue of Church & State went to press before Election Day, but Americans United spent much of its time in the months prior to the election monitoring and responding to a host of activities by religious groups that played fast and loose with legal boundaries.
These activities included:
• Stacked “voter guides”: Religious Right organizations have perfected the art of the biased voter guide. These publications are described to pastors as legal for distribution in churches because they supposedly offer a balanced look at the candidates’ views. In fact, they are clearly stacked to make Religious Right-backed candidates look like saints and their opponents like sinners. Often, the guides are studded with errors of fact or omission.
A guide produced by Family Research Council Action, for example, rated Obama and Romney on 14 issues. But even the descriptions of the issue were slanted. Obama was described as backing “military social engineering” for allowing gays to serve openly in the military.
The guide also accused Obama of supporting “special employment rights based on sexual behavior,” when in fact he advocates giving gay workers many of the same rights already extended to others.
Several groups produced voter guides this year, including Priests for Life and Ralph Reed’s Faith & Freedom Coalition. In a New York Times profile of Reed, the former Christian Coalition operative bragged that he would reach 117,000 churches this year. The figure is undoubtedly exaggerated – scholars estimate that there are 350,000 congregations nationwide – but Reed claims to have received $10 million from right-wing funders and certainly did work to build a ground game.
A mid-September email from Reed’s group vowed that the organization would distribute 15 million voter guides and pleaded with supporters to serve as “FFC Congregation Liaisons.”
Guides produced by groups like FRC Action and Faith & Freedom Coalition present a legal problem for churches. Both Religious Right organizations hold 501(c)(4) tax exemptions that allow them to be partisan and endorse candidates. Houses of worship, by contrast, are 501(c)(3) groups that are barred from endorsing or opposing candidates.
• Special training sessions for pastors and rallies for congregants: At its Values Voter Summit, the FRC and allied groups held a special session on political activity. Attendees were told that if their pastor won’t go political, they should find another church.
Some Religious Right groups targeted the clergy with events designed to “educate” them about the need for weaving political content into sermons. Many such gatherings were held in swing states.
The Florida Family Policy Council, an affiliate of Focus on the Family, sponsored events in six cities featuring Dr. Wayne Grudem, author of the book Politics According to the Bible. His 619-page tome purports to explain the proper “biblical” position on every issue, even modern ones.
Grudem promised to explain “How, Why & When Pastors Should Preach About Politics.” He also worked to allay fears among some conservative evangelicals that they shouldn’t vote for a Mormon.
A Florida Family Policy video circulating on YouTube shows him handling this question from an audience member during a Q&A. Grudem asserts that it’s better to vote for a Mormon whose “values are consistent with biblical moral standards” than a liberal.
The men and women in the pews weren’t forgotten. Aside from the Values Voter Summit (which was essentially a pro-GOP rally), several Religious Right groups banded together to host “America for Jesus 2012.” The two-day event in Philadelphia – billed as a “national solemn assembly” – was purportedly intended to kick off 40 days of prayer prior to the election.
Organizers insisted that the rally was non-political, but its celebrities came exclusively from the Religious Right. Included were the FRC’s Tony Perkins, TV preacher Pat Robertson, anti-gay pastor Bishop Harry Jackson, Vonette Bright, widow of Campus Crusade for Christ founder Bill Bright, and the Rev. Jim Garlow, an increasingly prominent Religious Right pastor in California.
Also on the docket was self-proclaimed prophet Cindy Jacobs, a popular Pentecostal preacher who argues that prayer is not enough.
Writing recently in Charisma magazine, Jacobs opined, “We have prayed for the ending of abortion, for the U.S. to be a righteous nation. Why haven’t we succeeded? The cumulative answer was that we needed not only to pray, but we needed to act. We now call the marriage of these two, prayer activism.”
An estimated 10,000 people attended the event. Among the speakers was Robertson, who thundered, “I don’t care what the ACLU says or any atheist says, this nation belongs to Jesus!”
• Pulpit Politicking: On Oct. 7, the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) sponsored its annual “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” during which pastors were encouraged to openly defy the law by endorsing or opposing candidates from the pulpit.
The ADF claimed that nearly 1,600 pastors took part in the event this year, but it’s unclear how many actually called for the election or defeat of specific candidates. In past years, many participating clergy have merely discussed issues, which the law allows.
But there’s no doubt that some pastors aren’t just going up to the line in this area, they’re jumping right over it. Americans United received a steady stream of complaints of church electioneering during the campaign season.
And it wasn’t always just fundamentalist Protestant pastors. Several Catholic clerics seemed determine to push the envelope this year – even though the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has instructed its clergy not to issue pulpit endorsements.
In New York City, several people contacted Americans United after a Catholic church ran an article in its bulletin endorsing Romney.
The Church of Saint Catherine of Siena’s Sept. 2 bulletin contained a column by the Rev. John Farren, a member of the congregation’s pastoral staff. Titled “From Father Farren, O.P.,” the essay reprinted an appeal by several former U.S. ambassadors to the Vatican calling on Catholics to vote for Romney.
The appeal, which Farren reproduced in full, criticizes the Obama administration and concludes, “We urge our fellow Catholics, and indeed all people of good will, to join with us in this full-hearted effort to elect Governor Mitt Romney as the next President of the United States.”
Americans United received a copy of the bulletin from a person who had attended the service. AU forwarded it to the Internal Revenue Service as part of a formal complaint.
Around the same time, two groups, Catholics United and Faithful America, began an online petition drive to protest Farren’s action, in short order gathering more than 27,000 signatures on documents that were delivered to the New York Archdiocese. (The uproar sparked a story in The New York Times.)
A few weeks later, the church bulletin carried a special message from the Rev. Jordan Kelly, the church’s pastor.
“The reprinting of this letter was an unfortunate error in judgment,” Kelly told congregants.
A similar incident occurred in El Paso,Texas, where attendees at St. Raphael Catholic Church were given bulletins that included the statement, “I am asking all of you to go to the polls and be united in replacing our present president with a president that will respect the Catholic Church in this country. Please pass this on to all of your Catholic friends.”
Americans United reported the matter to the IRS, and almost immediately officials at the El Paso diocese ordered Msgr. Francis J. Smith to retract it. Smith wrote a message that was inserted into another bulletin.
“I am recanting the last two sentences from this statement as it was published on Aug. 5, 2012,” Smith wrote. “I apologize and ask for your forgiveness if I have offended anyone. The last thing I wish to do is be offensive to my faith and the faithful.”
In Springfield, Ill., Bishop Thomas John Paprocki wrote a column for the diocesan newspaper, Catholic Times, warning Catholics that if they voted for the wrong candidate, it could put their souls in jeopardy. The thrust of Paprocki’s message made it clear who the “wrong” candidates were: pretty much all Democrats.
The bishop asserted that the Democrats support many “evils” – mainly legal abortion and same-sex marriage. He pointed out that there are some positive items in the Democratic platform but quickly added that other planks “explicitly endorse intrinsic evils.” Of the Republican platform he wrote, “[T]here is nothing in it that supports or promotes an intrinsic evil or a serious sin.”
Just in case anyone didn’t get the message, Paprocki concluded, “Again, I am not telling you which party or which candidates to vote for or against, but I am saying that you need to think and pray very carefully about your vote, because a vote for a candidate who promotes actions or behaviors that are intrinsically evil and gravely sinful makes you morally complicit and places the eternal salvation of your own soul in serious jeopardy.”
In Newark, N.J., Archbishop John J. Myers tried a more subtle tactic. Myers issued a statement condemning same-sex marriage (with a few references to abortion) that went so far as to instruct Catholics who disagree with church teachings on marriage to refrain from receiving communion.
Myers insisted that his statement had nothing to do with the election and told the Newark Star-Ledger that he had been thinking about issuing it for a long time and just happened to do so five weeks before the election.
Not all of the church-electioneering complaints concerned Catholic clergy. In Ridgway, Colo., a town of less than 1,000 in a sparsely populated portion of the state, Ridgway Christian Center/Praise Him Ministries mailed a glossy magazine to state residents that contained a photo of several American flags headlined, “Honor God! Love your country! VOTE REPUBLICAN!”
Inside the publication was a four-page broadside by ministry founder and president Victoria Hearst insisting that her ministry has the right to endorse candidates despite its tax-exempt status.
Americans United asked the IRS to investigate the matter.
Aside from the IRS reports, Americans United responded to the Religious Right in other ways during the run-up to the election. AU’s Lynn appeared on MSNBC’s “Ed Show” to discuss the extreme rhetoric he heard during the Values Voter Summit, and the organization reached out to other media outlets as well.
Americans United’s efforts had a dramatic effect in at least one area: They infuriated the Religious Right. Aside from hate mail, AU had to deal with a number of blasts from Religious Right groups that were angry over AU’s campaign to educate clergy about federal tax rules on electioneering.
Liberty Counsel, a legal group located at Jerry Falwell Jr.’s Liberty University, was especially incensed and issued several email blasts to its supporters criticizing AU.
“[T]he left-wing organization Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) has advised the leadership of 60,000 targeted churches across the nation not to become involved in ‘partisan politicking,’” blared one Liberty Counsel email.
Liberty Counsel President Mathew Staver went on to assert that AU’s true goal is to “SILENCE the truth from being spoken in American pulpits and to MUZZLE people of faith on the vital issues that will be decided in the 2012 elections.”
The email claimed that no church has ever lost its tax exemption for political activity. In fact, the Church at Pierce Creek in Binghamton, N.Y., was stripped of its tax-exempt status after running a newspaper ad in October of 1992 telling people that voting for Bill Clinton was a sin.
Americans United reported the church to the IRS. Attorneys with Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice sued on behalf of the congregation but lost the case in federal court.
In addition, non-profit ministries run by both Falwell and Robertson have been stripped of their tax exemption retroactively and fined tens of thousands of dollars for engaging in partisan political activity.
AU’s Lynn said the fact that Religious Right groups got so worked up over Americans United’s educational activities is proof that they are effective.
“The Religious Right just doesn’t get it,” Lynn said. “Houses of worship exist for spiritual, not political, reasons. Americans United was successful in responding to attempts to politicize churches this year, but I know these efforts will continue. We have to remain on guard.”