October 2010 Church & State | Featured

Evangelist Lou Engle believes the rally he held in Sacramento, Calif., over Labor Day weekend will be a turning point for America.

Engle boasted that his event would do nothing less than spark a nationwide revival. As Frederick Clarkson, a researcher of the Religious Right noted, the Kansas City, Mo.-based preacher asserted that “The Call Sacramento” event would be the “hinge of history” that opens the door to “the greatest awakening” and lead to “returning our nation to its righteous roots.”

It may sound ambitious, but Engle isn’t the only Religious Right leader with big plans these days. Indeed, it has been a busy fall for the theocrats, who are on the march nationwide in advance of next month’s elections.

Rebounding from two difficult years, an array of Religious Right organizations are waging a massive – often under-the-radar – campaign this fall to register church-going voters, drive congregants to the polls and elect favored candidates.

Their goal is simple: Help their political allies recapture the House of Representatives and Senate and move their issues front and center on the national stage.

Although many of the events are cast as benign-sounding prayer rallies or calls for revival, there is often a not-so-subtle political component as well. Many of the confabs include partisan speakers or incorporate voter mobilization activities.

Recent events included:

Aug. 28: Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” Rally. Beck, the controversial Fox News pundit, sponsored a rally at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., that attracted about 100,000 attendees. (A smaller “Divine Destiny” event at the Kennedy Center the night before drew 1,500 people.)

Beck is a Mormon but often features “Christian nation” rhetoric on his program, with David Barton, a Texas Religious Right activist who insists that church-state separation is a myth, as a frequent guest. Beck described his event as a celebration of civil rights and said it would be non-political. However, Sarah Palin was among the speakers, and the day after the rally, Beck attacked President Barack Obama’s religious beliefs during a national television appearance.

Sept. 3-4: “The Call Sacramento.” Engle, a Pentecostal preacher who is popular with evangelical college students, held this event in California’s capital in part due to the ongoing “cultural war” there over same-sex marriage. Engle demands that conservative Christians “vote and act according to God’s heart and mandates” and portrays politics as a struggle between “kingdom power” and “this present darkness.”

Sept. 10-11: Faith & Freedom Coalition Conference and Strategy Briefing. Former Christian Coalition operative Ralph Reed’s attempt to get back in the political game was tested when his new group, the Faith & Freedom Coalition, held its first conference in Washington, D.C. Reed –who fell from grace due to his involvement in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandals – claims to be raising $32 million to steer conservative Christians to the polls.

Sept. 17-18: Values Voter Summit. The Family Research Council (FRC) and allied organizations held their annual Summit in Washington, D.C. This event has become the leading Religious Right conference in the nation and attracts a bevy of major Religious Right leaders and Republican politicians. In addition to the FRC, sponsors included the American Family Association, the Heritage Foundation and Liberty University.

Sept. 19: “Pray & A.C.T.” The Rev. Jim Garlow, an associate of Newt Gingrich, organized this project, which features a period of 40 days of prayer and fasting prior to the elections. The D.C. kickoff included a voter registration component and will conclude Oct. 30 with a rally at the Lincoln Memorial. Supported by a broad coalition of conservative religious leaders, the Renewing American Leadership project calls for Christians to “transform the culture” by “voting in elections only for candidates who affirm the sanctity of life in all stages and conditions, the integrity of marriage as the union of one man and one woman, and religious liberty and respect for conscience.”

Sept. 20: The “40/40 Prayer Vigil.” This nationwide event, sponsored by the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, claims to focus on personal spiritual revival. However, the 40-day vigil begins with a prayer for voter registration, includes a prayer for Christians to run for office and ends with a prayer for “discernment of candidates” and for “God’s people to vote.”

Sept. 26: “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.” The Alliance Defense Fund urged evangelical pastors nationwide to violate federal tax law by endorsing or opposing candidates from the pulpit.

Why are there so many events, and why do so many of them feature voter mobilization?

In a nutshell, the Religious Right’s fortunes are closely tied to the Republican Party’s status. When the GOP lost power in Washington in 2008, the Religious Right also took a hit. Its legislative proposals have stalled, and it finds itself unable to block bills and court appointments and effectively influence governmental policy.

Eager to regain power in the nation’s capital (and in state legislatures), the Religious Right is going all out to do whatever it can to help more of its allies get elected to public office.

Voter registration, mobilization and get-out-the-vote efforts are key to the effort. Polls show that regular churchgoers are much more likely to vote Republican. In addition, a recent poll conducted by the Pew Forum found that 74 percent of evangelicals say they are likely to vote in 2010.

Religious Right groups are eager to keep this segment of the GOP fired up until Nov. 2. A steady string of conferences, voter registration events and other activities will help.

Researcher Joe Conason, writing in Salon magazine in late August, pointed out that many of these events feature overlapping endorsers and attendees.

Pray & A.C.T., Conason notes, has been endorsed by “political leaders such as Focus on the Family’s Jim Daly, who took over from James Dobson; Princeton University professor Robert George; Fox News host and former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee; Cindy Jacobs of the Generals of Intercession; Southern Baptist leader Richard Land, who attended the Lincoln Memorial rally at Beck’s invitation; Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council; and Tim Wildmon, who is taking over the American Family Association from his father, Don.”

Conason quotes Clarkson, who blogs at the progressive Web site “Talk To Action,” as saying these organizations are busy mobilizing a new generation.

“These events may fairly be seen in the context of the ongoing transition of the Religious Right as the founding generation of movement leaders passes from the scene,” observed Clarkson. “R.J. Rushdoony, Jerry Falwell, D. James Kennedy, Bill Bright, and John Giminez (among others) have died. Pat Robertson, Don Wildmon, James Dobson, and Beverly LaHaye are in varying stages of passing the torch; and each of their designees are coalescing via Pray & A.C.T., which in turn is appealing to and seeking to register young people to vote.”

Clarkson sees a political angle to the fall events, saying that Engle’s Sacramento gathering “has been repositioned as the kick-off of a major Christian Right fall political campaign initiative.” 

The Religious Right has another reason to boost its visibility: It is in danger of being overshadowed by the Tea Party movement. This loosely structured conglomeration of anti-government activists remains divided over social issues. Some want to incorporate these issues into the movement, while others want to keep the focus on matters like low taxes and deregulation.

During this year’s primary season, Tea Party groups flexed surprising political muscle, in some cases elevating favored candidates over ones backed by the GOP establishment. For a movement no one had even heard of until last year, it was an impressive feat.

Aware of this power, Religious Right organizations are working to woo the Tea Party – or replicate its success. The Family Research Council held a special session at the Values Voter Summit for Tea Party activists last year and then did so again during this year’s conference.

Some right-wing figures, notably Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck, straddle both camps and may serve as a bridge between the two. But in the end, it almost doesn’t matter if the two movements formally cooperate or not. Their goal is the same: elect as many ultra-conservatives to public office as possible. They can work together on this or do it on parallel tracks.

Americans United is working to make sure that Religious Right political activities do not draw churches into illegal campaign involvement. AU’s response is twofold: educate Americans about the resurgence of the Religious Right and target projects that are legally dubious.

Endorsing or opposing candidates from the pulpit, an activity encouraged by the Alliance Defense Fund, is a good example. Such activity is not legal. In fact, it’s a violation of federal law.

The Internal Revenue Code bars all 501(c)(3) organizations – a category that includes houses of worship – from intervening in elections by endorsing or opposing candidates.

Americans United has reported houses of worship for violating the law and will do so again this year if necessary.

AU is also taking a proactive stand. Across the country, AU chapters and activists are contacting religious leaders to educate them about the provisions of federal law that bar politicking.

AU maintains a separate Web site, www.projectfairplay.org, that contains a wealth of resources about the issue. The site includes a “Dear Religious Leader” letter signed by AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn that AU members and activists can download, copy and send to clergy in their area.

“Any activity designed to influence the outcome of a partisan election can be construed as intervention,” observes the letter. “If the IRS determines that your house of worship has engaged in unlawful intervention, it can revoke the institution’s tax-exempt status or levy significant fines on the house of worship or its leaders.”

AU is working with its nationwide network of chapters to get the letter into the hands of as many members of the clergy as possible.

In Southern California, AU’s Orange County Chapter quickly swung into action, mailing 180 letters to local houses of worship.

Chapter President Stephanie Campbell told Church & State that her area includes a mix of evangelical mega-churches and smaller congregations of various denominations. All of them, she said, need to be educated about the law.

“Here in Orange County, we need to promote Project Fair Play to all our congregations so that houses of worship understand what is legal and what’s not,” Campbell said. “They need to know how to follow the law or face the consequences.”

Campbell said that in 2008 she spoke to several pastors during the battle over Proposition 8, a controversial constitutional amendment that banned same-sex marriage in the state, and found a good deal of confusion over what houses of worship may and may not do in the political arena.

“They had no idea what they could or couldn’t do,” observed Campbell. “I expect the big churches get it – like Pastor Rick Warren’s Saddleback – but Orange County is covered with small churches who don’t understand. As a chapter activist, I think the most important thing I can do is to educate, and helping spread the word on Project Fair Play is a great way to do it.”

AU chapters in Nashville, Tenn., Seattle, Wash., Austin, Texas, Delaware Valley, Pa., and other communities quickly signed up as well.

But even as AU gears up to respond, aggressive and well-funded Religious Right groups remain on the march.

Can their mix of rallies, conferences and legally dubious activities help the Religious Right get back in the driver’s seat in D.C.? Only after the election results are in on Nov. 3 will Americans know for sure.

In Sacramento, Engle’s rally highlighted standard Religious Right issues such as opposition to same-sex marriage and legal abortion. Organizers hoped for a crowd of 50,000 – but turnout was much lower. Many news outlets pegged it as simply “thousands.”

The Sacramento Bee reported that “while the area immediately adjacent to the stage was packed, the mall remained largely empty.”

Nevertheless, Religious Right groups are expected to receive a much more favorable reception in the halls of Congress in 2011. Religious conservatives are pulling out all the stops to help their friends, and some sort of accommodation will have to be made to repay the movement.

“The Religious Right is aiming for renewed power in Washington and the state legislatures,” said AU’s Barry Lynn. “Those of us who support the church-state wall should brace ourselves for a new round of attacks into next year and beyond.”