Religious Left vs. Religious Right in Ohio
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Thu Mar 15, 2007 at 12:58:00 AM EST
There was a pivotal event in the relationship between religion and politics in the run up to the 2006 election. It was not what most of the Inside the Beltway conventional wisdom would have us believe -- because it is something for which they cannot take credit.

For the past few years in Ohio, a theocratic faction led by televangelist Rod Parsley of the World Harvest Church and megachurch pastor Russell Johnson Fairfield Christian Church were seeking to rally the religious right on behalf of Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell's run for governor. There was nothing inherently wrong with that, except for one thing: it was obvious that they were operating in flagrant abuse of the laws governing what is permissible for 501 (c)(3) non-profit tax exempt organizations. To those of us who have been following the rise of the religious right as a political movement, this was nothing new. But what was remarkable was how blatant Parsley and Johnson were. It proved to be their undoing.

Parsley and Johnson seemed to be gaining traction: holding big meetings of the Ohio Restoration Project, and working in consort with up and coming religious right leader Rick Scarborough of Texas to develop networks of "Patriot Pastors" not only in Ohio but in Texas and Missouri. A national model seemed to be in the works.

But something went wrong. Parsley and Johnson seemed to pull-back just as the campaign season was heating up. Anastasia Pantsios writes in an excellent article in the Cleveland Free Times:

While the Ohio Restoration Project held a series of organizing events throughout 2005 and early '06, all featuring Blackwell, those events had ceased by the spring. Blackwell's campaign never seemed to find a strong religious voice, while the faith campaign of Democrat Ted Strickland, an ordained minister, was more nuanced and successful as he drew the conversation away from abortion and gay marriage into areas such as economic growth, health care and education. Blackwell finally announced the support of an assemblage of Christian pastors late in the campaign, in press conferences in Columbus and Cincinnati in late August where he was flanked by less than 30 clergy, many of them from out of state. Where were the 2,000 Ohio Patriot Pastors? And while Johnson attended, Parsley was conspicuously absent.

What happened was that a group of progressive clergy had gotten fed up. They got together and filed a very public complaint with the Internal Revenue Service.

In December 2005, a group of Columbus-based pastors, including the Rev. Eric Brown of Woodland Christian Church, one of We Believe Ohio's Columbus co-conveners, complained to the IRS that Parsley's and Johnson's churches had violated their tax-exempt nonprofit status with openly partisan campaigning.

Surprisingly, the IRS seemed to take it seriously. The following spring the IRS issued a warning covering nonprofits and churches around the country to knock off the openly partisan political work. That could have had a dampening effect on the right's plans in Ohio.

Indeed. The key political engines of the Patriot Pastors suddenly found themselves throttled. I told the Free Times:

"When the IRS is knocking on your door and asking for your financial records... and you know that you've been way over the line, and if you don't know, your lawyers are telling you, and ok, it's campaign season and there's all these people keeping an eye on you. What do you do? You pull back and you live to fight another day... So Parsley and Johnson, who have big empires to maintain, they make smart choices. They had enough strength to get the nomination for Blackwell, but the combination of his obvious extreme views and his personal connection to the voter suppression [in the 2004 election] made him damaged goods at the outset."

Similarly, Rev. John Lentz of Forest Hill Presbyterian Church in Cleveland Heights, a mbmer of the steering committee of We Believe, a multifaith progressive network established to offer an alternative voice to the religious right stated:

"I wouldn't be surprised if both Blackwell's campaign and these guys realized that it was going to be counterproductive because they were beginning to generate a very serious and I think effective backlash... And I think that even the threat that some pastors started a lawsuit in terms of the separation of church and state endorsement, they really did a lot of backtracking."

In February 2006, the IRS issued a report on allegations of electioneering by non-profits and announced an education and enforcement campaign going into the 2006 election season. I wrote about it at the time, and posted the main points of the IRS rules and linked to the IRS web site where details were posted. Here is part of the IRS' defintion of  the "Prohibition on Political Campaign Intervention:"

Under the Internal Revenue Code, all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. The prohibition applies to all campaigns including campaigns at the federal, state and local level....  Political campaign intervention includes any and all activities that favor or oppose one or more candidates for public office.

There was nothing new in this. What had changed was the times. The religious right had been so overt and arrogant for so long, and groups like Americans United for Separation of Church and State were getting increasingly agressive about filing complaints and seeking enforcement. The credibility of the IRS on even handed enforcement of the law was in question, and the IRS wanted to make clear the the law would be fully and fairly enforced. Parsely and Johnson were not going to get away with much in such a climate and they were already in trouble for past flagrant abuses.

It has been important that mainstream religious leaders reclaim their voice in public life, instead of abandoning the playing field to the religious right. And it has been important too, for Democratic pols to figure out how not to allow themselves to be faith-baited by the religious right. But in Ohio last year, something important happened that did not originate with campaign consultants and spin doctors.  What made a decisive difference was that mainstream religious leaders laid it on the line and together stood-up against the theocratic element that was flagrantly abusing the tax-status of churches for political gain.  The evidence strongly suggests that this unexpected move threw the Ohio Restoration Project into disarray, and made other prospective "patriot pastors" wary. In the end, few minisers are willing to put the financial footing of their institutions at risk just because the likes of Parsley and Johnson say they should -- especially when serious, credible religious leaders step forward and say that these men had gone too far, too often.

This goes to the difference between "message" and organization. The Ohio Restoration Proejct was premised on the idea of "patriot pastors" mobilizing their congregations to become an electoral force. The weak link in the plan, was that pastors represent churches, which are very clearly proscribed from electioneering.

Ministers and "people of faith" have every right to be engaged in politics as individuals or to form legal organizations to do so like anyone else. But no one has a right to abuse the tax code: It ain't rocket science.

So the organizational premise of the patriot pastors was severely damaged by the thoughtfulness and courage of mainstream religious leaders taking concrete action in response to the religious right. It was this action that threw a monkey wrench into the organizational efforts of the Ohio Restoration Project which at the time, was the most active religious right entity in the state, and pivotal to the electoral hopes of Ken Blackwell.  

does not mean merely offering alternative "voices" and "messages."  It also means taking appropriate direct actions; and competing in the electoral arena. The religious right will regroup in Ohio, just like any other determined political faction after a loss. Realigning the electorate requires efforts on lots of fronts.

The classic error has been to misunderstand and make false presumptions about the religious right.  This is an instance in which that did not happen. This is a case study in effective political action.

by Frederick Clarkson on Thu Mar 15, 2007 at 01:18:09 AM EST

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