Crossing The Line: Religious Right Activists Plump For Politics In The Pulpit
Rob Boston printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Wed Apr 30, 2008 at 09:36:46 AM EST
The Family Research Council (FRC) has big plans for this election year - perhaps even legally questionable ones.

Kenyn Cureton, FRC's vice president for church ministries, appeared April 22 on Religious Right activist Janet Folger's "Faith2Action" radio program, discussing his organization's plans for mobilizing pastors this year. He may have been a little too frank.

During the discussion, Folger mentioned that members of her church were thinking of voting for U.S. Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. The idea that another Christian might dare to disagree with Folger on politics was apparently too much for her to bear.

"It just seems to me that the messages are somehow not reaching the congregations," Folger said. "Is it the pastors that need to speak more clearly? What's the answer?"

"I think that's the case," Cureton replied. "The pastors need to speak clearly about it. I'll tell you we are working with the Alliance Defense Fund on a series of sermons this fall for pastors to preach, so that they educate their people on the issues.

"We're gonna be talking about the value of life, the value of family and the value of freedom, basically talking about abortion and stem-cell research," he continued, "and then also about the gay agenda and then finally about our Christian heritage and how it's being stripped from every corner of society. And then finally we're gonna be doing a candidate comparison message that is going to ask pastors to cross the line."

"Really?" said Folger. "What do you mean `cross the line'? You're going to be suggesting they tell people who to vote for?"

Cureton, perhaps realizing he was speaking too candidly, began to back-pedal.

"We're going," he said, "to prompt pastors and say to them that, you know, we really believe that they need to challenge some of the things, some of the thinking that we have going on in our society, which is that separation of church and state doctrine, that we really need to preach the Bible on these issues and apply them to the things that are going on in the culture today."

I can't wait to see the Alliance Defense Fund's "candidate comparison." The IRS has been quite clear that documents that purport to compare candidates must be objective, fair and cover a range of issues if they're going to be distributed by churches and other tax-exempt charities. I have a feeling that's not what the ADF and the FRC have in mind, since their goal seems to be persuading people not to vote for Democrats.  

Folger went on to assert that churches can "explain here's where the candidates stand, here's what the Bible says and people can draw that conclusion, but we need to make sure that it's clear not only what the Bible says but also where those candidates stand."

She concluded by wondering what would happen if a bunch of pastors would openly "cross the legal line" and added, "I think sometimes we need to do it anyway, to obey a higher authority than the one that represents our government. When the two are at odds, it's God we obey, much like Daniel."

My guess is that if anyone challenges the FRC on its scofflaw plans, the organization will insist that all it wants pastors to do is talk about issues. But discussion of issues is permissible, hence no need to "cross the line."

What's not permitted is for houses of worship to tie those issues to an individual's campaign and distribute material that makes one candidate look like a saint and the other a sinner.

What might happen if some religious leaders decided to listen to the FRC and cross the line? Their churches could be sanctioned by the IRS - audited, fined or stripped of their tax-exempt status. As my colleague Joe Conn pointed out recently on Americans United's blog, the IRS has just warned houses of worship not to venture down this partisan road.

Since the FRC and the ADF have a plan for this year, AU and other defenders of church-state separation must be as well. We'll be reading the ADF's sample sermons, examining its "candidate comparison" and warning houses of worship to keep partisan material designed to influence voters out of the pews.

The vast majority of clergy happily obey the law. Those who don't can expect a visit from the IRS.

Above all, we'll be reminding religious leaders why some lines are better left uncrossed.

I'm surprised we haven't seen this issue wind up in the courts. The basic issue would, IMO, be one of "free exercise of religious beliefs" versus an interpretation of IRS regulations. Given how much the federal judiciary has been packed with social conservatives this would be quite a case.
Recently, during a discussion about this issue, I brought up the example of a pastor telling his flock to "go out and vote your conscience" and nothing more. The response from the atheist side was a lot of shouting and telling me that  any minister shouldn't even be talking about voting even in passing. I think this is a bit extreme so I will ask you your opinion on the matter.

by Frank Frey on Wed Apr 30, 2008 at 11:29:42 AM EST
as is voter registration.

My pastor just says, "exercise your liberties, go vote" and leaves it at that. Suits me - I go to church for worship, otherwise I could just stay home and watch the Sunday morning gabfest.

by NancyP on Wed Apr 30, 2008 at 05:02:41 PM EST

A few years ago, there were "voter's guides" in the pews of the church I attended (I never found out who put them there).

They were all very clear on who to vote for and why.  It was VERY partisan.  Clearly- vote for __ because he/she is a good Christian (and is lockstep with us on these issues).  Don't vote for ____ because he/she is one of those evil liberals.

I've seen others during other more recent election years that weren't as overtly partisan- but you could easily read between the lines.

I don't know what's happened in the last 3 or so years.  It's been that long since I've been in a church (the dominionists drove us out).

I do know that some of the dominionists in the church were pressuring people to vote strictly conservative (pointing out who to vote for and who you should not consider) as of the last election held while we still attended church.

If the government investigated the churches in this county- I'd bet that a lot would be in deep water!

This development doesn't surprise me at all- they're getting bolder and more determined all the time.

by ArchaeoBob on Wed Apr 30, 2008 at 12:25:41 PM EST

I don't know how the italics were inserted in my post.

by ArchaeoBob on Wed Apr 30, 2008 at 03:36:22 PM EST

The issue has been litigated at least once. A church near Binghamton, NY, placed an ad in USA Today in 1992, telling people not to vote for Bill Clinton. The IRS pulled the church's tax exemption, and Pat Robertson's attorneys sued on behalf of the church. In court, they made a free speech argument -- and lost.

I can't see a statement like "vote your conscience" being a problem. But if you had a race where one candidate was pro-choice and the other pro-life, and the pastor said, "Don't vote for anyone who is pro-choice," that would be considered an endorsement of the other candidate.

The IRS website has more info here:,,id=155030,00.h tml

by Rob Boston on Wed Apr 30, 2008 at 01:20:13 PM EST


Thanks for your input. The link is especially helpful. Based on my experience there are a few atheists who should read these documents.

by Frank Frey on Wed Apr 30, 2008 at 02:44:09 PM EST

Rick Scarborough tells audiences that it is legal for the minister to proclaim from the pulpit who he is voting for. If memory serves me, the HAPC in Houston is saying the same thing.

by wilkyjr on Wed Apr 30, 2008 at 05:31:33 PM EST

Pure and simple greed! If these pastors are so driven by conscience to turn their churches in to right-wing political organizations, why don't they just give up their tax exempt status? We fought a revolution based on the principle of "no taxation without representation". I think we need a new revolution against the churches on the principle "no representation without taxation". If you don't want to contribute to this country, you should keep your mouth shut about how it's run. Interestingly, the only political statement Jesus ever made was to tell people to pay their taxes, which is the one thing these churches don't want to do.

by Dave on Wed Apr 30, 2008 at 06:51:13 PM EST

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