GOD'S COUNTRY – The Washington Post has finally picked up on a story that we previously reported here , namely that one of the primary religious legal foundations is encouraging pastors from around the country to violate the requirements of their tax-exempt status under the Internal Revenue Code by electioneering from the pulpit – and they've even set the day on which they're all going to do it.
The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), founded by Focus on the Family leader James Dobson and headed by former Meese Commission counsel Alan Sears, launched a campaign in late June to enlist clergy in politically sensitive areas like Ohio, Texas, Minnesota, Alabama, Mississippi and 15 other states to endorse specific political candidates – likely exclusively Republicans – during their sermons on Sunday, Sept. 28.
"For so long, there has been this cloud of intimidation over the church," ADF attorney Erik Stanley said. "It is the job of the pastors of America to debate the proper role of church in society. It's not for the government to mandate the role of church in society."
Stanley's statement, however, obscures the point. Clergy at churches (and synagogues and mosques, etc.) in the U.S. are completely free to say whatever they want from their pulpits, including "the proper role of church in society." What they're not free to do is to deliver a partisan message that's funded by taxpayers – which is exactly what would happen, since the reason that religious institutions (and several other charitable and educational groups) are exempted from paying taxes is because they are supposed to have no stake in whether, for instance, Barack Obama or John McCain wins the upcoming presidential election.
Hence, far from the government "mandat[ing] the role of church in society," the feds have merely limited the churches' role in government and freed churches from attempts by politicians, through budget earmarks, to influence church doctrine and clerical speech, as was common in colonial times, and remains common in various areas throughout the world. It prevents tax-exempt religious organizations from being able to label someone, for instance, "the Christian candidate," thereby maintaining the separation of religion and government that the Founders envisioned in the First Amendment. Indeed, pastors can (and do) speak out about myriad issues facing their adherents; they are only prevented from saying, "This is the candidate who can solve those problems." And that's exactly what the ADF wants to change.
"The sermon will be an evaluation of conditions for office in light of scripture and doctrine," claims Stanley, who seems to be coordinating the effort on behalf of ADF. "They will make a specific recommendation from the pulpit about how the congregation would vote."
Left unsaid is how the Bible, with its 2000-plus-years-old myriad internal contradictions, can possibly provide a clear prescription for which candidate could do a better job representing the people of this country. Scripture will have to be "interpreted" – and those interpretations will depend almost entirely on the political bias of the interpreter.
But although the Post reports that, "Rather than wait for the IRS to investigate an alleged violation, the organization intends to create dozens of violations and take the U.S. government to court on First Amendment grounds," the tactic is hardly that pure. ADF could have planned its "Pulpit Initiative" for sometime in July or August, rather than just five weeks before the election. Obviously, the intention of the late date is to allow fundamentalist preachers to exhort their flocks to vote for Republicans one candidate or another close enough to the election that the IRS will be unable to sanction the church for its electioneering until after, ADF hopes, its favored fundie-friendly candidates are elected.
And if, for instance, John McCain and the ultra-religious Sarah Palin are elected, they would be in a position to instruct IRS officials not to prosecute offending clergy, thereby moving the country further toward becoming a theocratic state.
Admittedly, ADF is taking a (small) gamble, since as the Post story notes, it is, as three former IRS officials charge, "risking its own tax-exempt status by organizing an 'inappropriate, unethical and illegal' series of political endorsements."
But although former IRS attorney Marcus S. Owens opines that the Supreme Court would be unlikely to overturn existing appellate court rulings on political endorsements from the pulpit, he fails to take into account the fact that the next president is likely to have the opportunity to nominate as many as three new Supreme Court justices – and if that president is a conservative, the effects of those choices are likely to be devastating to the U.S. Constitution – and not just in the area of church/government relations.