Americans United for Separation of Church and State: Religious Right Offers Misleading Advice About Church Politicking

October 3, 2007
1:15 PM

CONTACT: Americans United for Separation of Church and State
(202) 466-3234

Religious Right Offers Misleading Advice About Church Politicking, Says Americans United
Religious Right Promotion Of Church Electioneering May Be Part Of Third-Party Presidential Plan, Says AU's Lynn

WASHINGTON - October 3 – Five Religious Right organizations have joined forces to advise religious leaders on the role of religion in politics, but the advice they are offering is flawed and should be ignored, says Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

In a joint letter Oct. 1, the Alliance Defense Fund, Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America and the James Madison Center for Free Speech attacked Americans United for allegedly intimidating evangelical pastors who want to speak out on social issues.

“The groups’ claim,” said Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn, “is completely bogus. It is an attempt to distract attention from the real issue the Religious Right’s campaign to build a church-based political machine.

“No one,” he continued, “disputes that pastors may speak out on social, political and moral issues. What federal tax law does not allow is electioneering for candidates by churches and other tax-exempt organizations.”

AU’s Lynn said James Dobson, Tony Perkins and other Religious Right leaders must be worried that evangelical clergy are continuing to reject their plan to politicize churches.

Dobson and Perkins recently participated in a top-tier Religious Right meeting to discuss a possible third-party nominee for president if Republicans advance a candidate who fails the movement’s litmus tests on abortion and gay rights. Evangelical church support would be critical to make that move viable politically.

“I suspect that this joint letter is laying the groundwork for a third-party presidential gambit,” said Lynn, who is an ordained minister. “I doubt if it will work. More and more pastors are catching on to the Religious Right’s con. They realize that the Religious Right wants to turn their churches into cogs in some candidate’s political machine, and they want no part of it.

“Pastors understand,” Lynn continued, “that Sunday morning is a time for helping people connect with God, not for issuing slanted ‘voter guides’ that are little more than instructions on whom to vote for.

“Every AU advisory on churches and politics has made it clear that discussion of issues is broadly protected,” Lynn added. “Dobson, Perkins and other Religious Right leaders know this, but continue to engage in fear-mongering by telling pastors that their right to talk about issues is in danger.”

The Religious Right’s letter also refers to loss of tax exemption as a “remote possibility.” Yet the IRS has continually signaled that it is cracking down in this area. One church lost its tax exemption for attacking a candidate (an action that was upheld by a federal appeals court).

Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network had its tax exemption revoked retroactively for political activity and was required to make a significant payment to the Internal Revenue Service. The late Jerry Falwell’s Old Time Gospel Hour suffered the same fate and had to pay $50,000 to the IRS. Other ministries have been issued warnings or audited.

Ironically, one of the signers of the Religious Right letter, Dobson’s Focus on the Family, was subjected to a year-long IRS audit over allegations of partisan politicking. Dobson, more than most, should know that the IRS takes this matter seriously.

After spending several paragraphs on the red-herring topic of issue advocacy, the Religious Right letter goes on to admit that Americans United is right about pulpit politicking.

“‘Active’ electioneering cannot be done by a church,” reads the Religious Right missive. “Active electioneering involves actions such as endorsements of candidates and expenditures of funds to expressly advocate the election or defeat of a particular candidate for political office.”

The Religious Right’s “guidelines” include a chart of do’s and don’ts asserting that church distribution of voter guides is permissible. In fact, the IRS warns churches not to distribute voter guides that are biased or that examine a narrow range of issues.

One IRS document warns, “Although any document that identifies candidates and their positions close in time to an election has the potential to result in political campaign intervention, preparation or distribution of voter guides, because of their nature, present a particular risk for non-compliance.”

Lynn advised pastors to reject the Religious Right’s unsolicited and unhelpful advice. He recommended reading sound materials at Americans United’s Web site or that of the Internal Revenue Service itself.