You could have gotten the impression that everybody was talking about Americans United during the recent Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C.
Literally seconds after I sat down for the opening session on my yearly pilgrimage to this major Religious Right gathering, I heard a fellow behind me making chit chat with the woman next to him. He was talking about “some group” that was trying to “intimidate pastors” by telling them they can’t endorse candidates from the pulpit.
Since I had just sat down and hadn’t turned around, I don’t think he said this because he recognized me. I’ll just have to assume it was the world’s worst pickup line.
Indeed, just days before the Summit, Americans United had issued a press statement about our recent project: We sent more than 60,000 letters to houses of worship throughout the United States, reminding clergy that federal law prohibits churches and other non-profits from endorsing or opposing any candidate for public office.
Our letter points out that church officials and perhaps their attorneys ought to read the IRS regulations about this so as not to run afoul of the law. The thrust is to educate, not intimidate. It’s akin to posting signs in a neighborhood reading, “Please drive carefully! Your kids could live here like ours do.”
As AU Communications Director Joe Conn and I were having lunch at the Summit hotel, retired Army Gen. William G. “Jerry” Boykin approached us to say hello. Boykin gained notoriety in 2002-03 because he had a habit of showing up in full uniform at fundamentalist gatherings to bash Islam and insist that Muslims worship an “idol.” He also was prone to asserting that the United States is a “Christian nation.”
Boykin left the military and is now executive vice president of the Family Research Council (FRC), the principal sponsor of the Summit. When Boykin told me that he hadn’t been given a program and wasn’t sure when he was speaking, I showed him mine, pointing out that he was on stage the next day as part of a panel on threats to religious freedom in America.
Boykin seemed quite disappointed when I told him I wouldn’t be sticking around for his presentation. If he had prepared a quip, he’d have to save it for another year.
Indeed, if the FRC wanted me to appear on some panel on this topic, I would be happy to accept. I can stand having people disagree with me. I could even handle seeing audience members blanch (and possibly faint) as I sauntered onto the stage.
On Saturday, when AU’s Rob Boston was covering the day’s events, he attended a workshop on pulpit politicking organized by the Rev. Rick Scarborough. The Vision America president told the crowd, “I keep waiting for my friend Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State to pop in. He usually comments on what I have to say.”
I have debated Rick on numerous occasions, and he actually showed a video of a media appearance we did some years back. Again, I would have come if I had been invited – and I don’t hide my identity. I sign up; I wear a suit for the occasional “alternative” viewpoint television interview; I got spoken to (almost always politely).
This year, FRC President Tony Perkins even mentioned me in a speech to a National Press Club luncheon two days before the Summit. AU’s Legislative Department tuned in on C-SPAN, and one of them yelled to me, “Tony Perkins just gave you a shout out, and it wasn’t even snarky!”
Indeed, Perkins noted that I always go to his event. He recalled that one year I said the Summit is “not a gathering of GOP consultants looking for their next contract” but mainly attended by “people new to the political process who want to participate in their country’s affairs.” Perkins said he agreed with me there.
I’ve been doing a lot of media interviews about our 60,000 letters. Americans United has been working to keep partisan politicking out of religious institutions for more than 20 years. I can tell reporters without hesitation that this has had a very positive effect. Most churches now avoid distributing biased “voters’ guides” that make one candidate look like a saint and the other a sinner.
Many individual pastors have learned that if they thought speaking out on political issues could create dissension in the congregation, it’s nothing like the reaction to telling the people in the pews whom to vote for.
You might have seen me on Anderson Cooper’s CNN show recently announcing that AU was filing an IRS complaint over a North Carolina church, whose minister – after saying that gay people ought to be placed into giant cages and left to die out – concluded that his adherents could not vote for a “baby killer and homosexual lover” named Barack Obama.
These pathetic things still happen. But more and more church leaders, with our help or through other channels, are coming to understand what a recent poll showed that two-thirds of Americans already believe: Partisan candidate peddling in church is a very bad idea.
Perhaps one of these days, even the attendees of the Values Voter Summit will catch on.
Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.