Last Sunday, as many as three dozen pastors may knowingly violate federal tax law by endorsing U.S. Sen. John McCain from the pulpit or attacking U.S. Sen. Barack Obama.
The campaign was organized by the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), an Arizona-based Religious Right legal group founded by a collection of TV and radio preachers in 1993. The ADF hopes that the Internal Revenue Service will strip at least one church of its tax-exempt status, enabling a team of Religious Right lawyers to launch a test case. The leaders of the Religious Right, being the masters of euphemism that they are, called this monstrosity "Pulpit Freedom Sunday."
I'm a Christian minister, but I understand why endorsing or opposing candidates from the pulpit is not part of my job description. It's incredibly arrogant of some pastors to think they have the right to make that decision for others or imply that their grasp of the issues is so great that everyone must defer to them. The people sitting in the pews are adults and can decide on their own which candidates to support.
But let's get back to the law. IRS regulations forbid all tax-exempt entities from intervening in campaigns by endorsing or opposing candidates. Tax exemption is a lucrative benefit, and the "no-politicking" rule is only one of many conditions organizations must meet.
It is not too much to ask, and most pastors are happy to comply. The ADF, however, insists that the regulation is a violation of freedom of speech and religion. They want to take a new case into the courts, despite the fact that the Religious Right lost the last time this matter came up. In 2000, a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C. ruled unanimously that the IRS regulation is constitutional. If a church wants to endorse candidates, the court said, it can give up its tax exemption.
So what's really going on here? I see the ADF gambit as part of an ongoing struggle to politicize America's houses of worship and create a powerful political machine that will work on behalf of the most reactionary right-wing conservatives - candidates who elevate divisive "culture war" issues like same-sex marriage, abortion and religion in public life above all others.
It's sad to see the church exploited in this way. Traditionally, faith communities have been the one place to transcend the "red vs. blue" divide. But right-wing activists are determined to forge a church-based political machine. Under their vision, it will register voters, transport them to the polls on election day and instruct them on how to vote. The idea is to rally enough of the evangelical vote to have an impact, especially in swing states.
Thankfully, forces are pushing back. Three former top IRS officials wrote to the tax agency, pointing out that it's not cool for tax attorneys to urge their clients to violate the law. In fact, it is a violation of the professional code that governs tax attorneys. The ex-IRS officials requested an investigation into the ADF's reckless ploy.
Many pastors are responding as well. Last weekend, clergy all over the nation spent time in church telling their congregations why pulpit endorsements are inappropriate. In Miami, Archbishop John C. Favalora issued a letter explaining why Catholic churches won't be taking part in the ADF gambit.
Even Jonathan Falwell, son of the late Moral Majority founder, seems wary. "I don't intend to endorse anyone," he said recently. "I don't think it's my role to be telling anyone who to vote for."
All of this comes at a time when record numbers of Americans are telling pollsters that they want to see religion and politics decoupled. Put simply, Americans attend houses of worship for spiritual reasons; they are weary of political pulpits.
Don't expect any of this to slow down the ADF and its allies. There are plenty of organizations in this country whose leaders believe a certain religion (theirs) is the true one and thus should be merged with government. They heap disdain on the separation of church and state and yearn for theocracy. (ADF's lead attorney, Alan Sears, blasted the church-state wall as "imaginary" during the recent "Values Voter Summit" in Washington.)
"Pulpit Freedom Sunday" is a vital part of the Religious Right's goal to "Christianize" America. The organization I lead, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, will be watching this Sunday and will file complaints with the IRS if any church steps over the line.
The IRS is aware that this massive program of deliberate law breaking is approaching. The tax agency has repeatedly stated that it intends to enforce the law and in fact runs a special project called the Political Activity Compliance Initiative to make sure non-profits follow the law. Here's hoping the IRS will be watching as well.