Like many religious leaders around the country, the Rev. Rusty Russell of Southeast Christian Church, a conservative nondenominational "mega-church" in Louisville, Ky., grappled with the issue of political involvement last month.
With the election fast approaching, a church committee met to decide whether to distribute Christian Coalition voter guides on Nov. 1. In the end, the committee said no to the Pat Robertson-founded political group. Russell was blunt in explaining the committee's rationale, telling The New York Times, "We felt like we wanted to stick with something intended to be a little more unbiased."
The deliberations at Southeast Christian were likely repeated at many houses of worship around the land just before last month's elections. Thanks to a new campaign launched by Americans United, many religious leaders had second thoughts about the wisdom of distributing Christian Coalition voter guides.
Americans United launched the effort last September as part of its "Project Fair Play," a nationwide drive to make houses of worship aware of federal tax law and Internal Revenue Service regulations that bar non-profit groups from intervening in partisan politics.
This year, Americans United sent approximately 80,000 letters to churches all over the nation, warning them that Christian Coalition voter guides are stacked to favor conservative Republican candidates. Churches that distribute the literature, AU warned, could get into trouble with the IRS. The move was designed to respond to the Christian Coalition's plans to distribute an alleged 36 million of its voter guides through conservative churches.
Not surprisingly, Coalition officials were less than enthusiastic about the Americans United initiative. On Oct. 15, Chuck Cunningham, the Coalition's director of national operations, issued a four-page bulletin to CC state and local leaders denouncing the AU effort.
The mailing, obtained by Americans United, included a letter from Christian Coalition Executive Director Randy Tate studded with personal attacks against AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn.
"As usual, [Lynn's letter] is false and misleading," wrote Tate. "But its intent is clear: HE WANTS TO DISCOURAGE CHRISTIANS FROM VOTING AND HE KNOWS PASTORS HOLD THE KEY. IF HE CAN MISLEAD YOU, HE CAN SILENCE MANY CHRISTIANS."
Calling Lynn "the ACLU's handpicked mouthpiece at the so-called `Americans United for the Separation of Church and State,'" Tate wrote, "The question for you as a pastor is this: Are you going to let the anti-religious agenda of the ACLU and Barry Lynn keep you from `feeding your flock'? I hope not!"
On Oct. 28 Robertson followed up with his own salvo on his nationally televised "700 Club." Unleashing a vicious attack against Lynn and Americans United, Robertson said, "Barry Lynn is lying. It's just that simple.... This man ... is a wolf in sheep's clothing. He is not what he pretends to be."
In their zeal to discredit Lynn and Americans United, Robertson and Tate resorted to distortions and, in some cases, outright falsehoods. For example, Robertson stated repeatedly that Americans United is a "front" for the ACLU, a group Robertson and the Coalition frequently demonize. In fact, Americans United has no organizational ties to the ACLU. (Ironically, the ACLU has sided with the Christian Coalition in a lawsuit the Federal Election Commission filed against the Robertson group for illegally working in cooperation with Republican campaigns.)
Robertson also asserted that Lynn has claimed to be a minister in the Unitarian Universalist Association, a denomination that doesn't "believe in the deity of Jesus." In fact, Lynn was ordained in the United Church of Christ in 1973 and has never belonged to any other denomination.
In the Americans United letter to churches, Lynn pointed out that Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network had its tax exemption revoked by the IRS retroactively for improper political activity. Lynn mentioned this so that religious leaders would understand it is risky to take advice from a man who flouts tax law himself.
On the "700 Club," Robertson called the assertion that CBN had its tax exemption revoked "an absolute lie." In fact, it is a matter of public record that the IRS yanked the CBN exemption for the years 1986 and '87. As part of the settlement, CBN was also required to pay a "significant penalty" to the IRS. (See "Render Unto Caesar," May 1998 Church & State.)
Robertson's camp complained that Americans United did not protest when Jesse Jackson announced plans to collect money for his Democratic presidential campaign in black churches in January of 1988. In fact, Americans United filed a formal protest with the IRS about the incident, and as a result of the ensuing controversy, Jackson dropped the proposal.
Observed Lynn, "I realize Robertson is angry that we are derailing his plan to politicize churches, but this overreaction is appalling, especially for a man who claims to represent Christianity."
Lynn added that the panicked reaction of Cunningham, Tare and Robertson indicates that the Americans United offensive was successful. Tate himself seemed to admit as much in an Oct. 27 interview with the conservative Washington Times. Referring to the AU mailing, Tare told the newspaper, "Some pastors are scared off."
Tate's unusual candor has led some critics to wonder if anything like 36 million Christian Coalition voter guides were distributed this November. The Christian Coalition has misled the public about such figures before.
The Coalition also apparently had virtually no success in getting its guides into Roman Catholic churches. Attorneys with the Catholic hierarchy have advised local parishes to use extreme caution when dealing with voter guides, especially those produced by outside groups.
In New Jersey, Coalition volunteer Nelida Kuhlman contacted Catholic clergy in Hackensack and Bergenfield but found none willing to accept the guides. "They're really afraid of losing their tax exemption," Kuhlman told The New York Times.
But even audiences that should have been receptive to the Coalition's message seemed wary this year. Kuhlman also said that half of the Protestant ministers she contacted turned her down as well.
In New Bern, N.C., so many pastors were suspicious that the local Christian Coalition affiliate felt obliged to take out a full-page ad in the local Sun Journal newspaper, insisting that churches have nothing to fear. It framed the debate in religious terms, asking local religious leaders, "[W]hom do you serve? God & freedom or Satan and bondage?"
But others shared Americans United's view of the voter guides. In Oklahoma, House Speaker Loyd Benson held a press conference to denounce the guides for containing falsehoods and distortions about Democratic candidates. One lawmaker, Sen. Dave Herbert of Midwest City, was so incensed at how his views were warped that he filed a libel lawsuit against the Oklahoma Christian Coalition and its director, Ken Wood.
Herbert says the Coalition guide states that he voted for a 1994 bill to decriminalize sodomy and bestiality when he actually opposed the measure. Herbert was listed as supporting minors' access to pornography in libraries when in fact he coauthored a resolution ordering libraries to block access to pornography on the Internet. In addition, the Coalition incorrectly accused the legislator of supporting abortion on demand.
Meanwhile, Americans United is moving ahead with its promise to file complaints with the IRS about churches for distributing Christian Coalition voter guides. From the reports sent to its national office, Americans United staff has selected five of the strongest cases, representing diverse geographical areas, and is forwarding them to IRS officials in the hopes of sparking a test case that will lead the federal tax agency to declare the Coalition's guides partisan. (For more information, see the January Church & State.)
In addition, Americans United filed two new Project Fair Play complaints before the election. Both involved Baltimore churches that endorsed Democrats, which Lynn cited as evidence of the project's non-partisan nature.
The new complaints included the United Baptist Missionary Convention, an alliance of 175 churches that offered to aid in the reelection campaign of Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) in exchange for state money to pay for various church-sponsored projects.
The other complaint involved the New Psalmist Baptist Church, a Baltimore congregation that hosted a Democratic Party rally the Sunday before the election. The Washington Post and other news media reported that President Bill Clinton spoke from the pulpit on behalf of Glendening and that several Democratic candidates were in attendance at the church.
Assessing Americans United's activity during the busy election season, Lynn dubbed Project Fair Play an unqualified Success.
Commented Lynn, "Last year when the Christian Coalition said it would draft 100,000 churches into its political machine, I vowed that Americans United would throw a monkey wrench into those works. We have succeeded. All over America religious leaders are reconsidering the wisdom of turning their houses of worship into temples of partisan politics to further the goals of Pat Robertson and his extremist Christian Coalition."
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|Title Annotation:||Televangelist Pat Robertson|
|Publication:||Church & State|
|Date:||Dec 1, 1998|
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