It’s one thing to hear those on the Religious Right ranting about the nation dissolving into a hot bed of sin. It’s one thing to hear elected officials spout ignorance backed by dogma. It’s something else entirely to see a concerted effort to overtake government with the goal of annihilating the separation of church and state.
A Christian organization called the American Renewal Project is holding a series of Issachar Trainings across the country in order to train roughly 1000 Evangelical pastors on how to run for and win political office. Issachar refers to a story in the Bible, in which the men of Issachar “understood the times and knew what Israel should do,” by which the Bible means help Kind David raise a massive army.
The logic is simple: Christian conservatives perceive their way of life as being under attack, and in order to keep their values codified as public policy, they’re going to have to win more elections. As American Renewal Project’s founder, David Lane, explained to NPR, “Somebody’s values are going to reign supreme. We want people with our values to represent our values and interests in the public square, be elected to office, and represent our issues.”
Lane also explained to the Christian Broadcasting Network that it doesn’t take much by way of candidate training to spark a movement. As he describes, with 1000 pastors running for office, at 300 volunteers per pastor, you get 300,000 volunteers across the country spreading conservative political gospel to voters, who in turn elect a large number of those pastors to office.
The concept of organizing to empower religious candidates is nothing new, but this whole proposition is messed up on a number of levels. For starters, this isn’t about promoting Christian values; it’s about codifying them. Such efforts are flagrantly a violation of the First Amendment. It’s not like these candidates are running to uphold the Constitution. That should, in theory, disqualify them from holding office. The scary thing is that it won’t.
There are other legal questions involved, as well. If the would-be-candidates-and-current-pastors attempt to rally their congregations to support them, they’re in violation of the law on multiple levels. Technically, clergymen and women are not legally allowed to endorse a candidate, allow candidates to campaign in front of the congregation without allowing all other candidates to do the same, disseminate election propaganda, or solicit volunteers for campaigns from the congregation. Should pastors choose to run for public office, however, this puts them in a tough spot. Even if they do resign their post, their successors are similarly prohibited from campaigning on their behalf. Violations such as these can jeopardize a church’s tax-exempt status.
One would think this might make efforts like the American Renewal Project a non-starter, but reality is a let-down. These laws are enforced next to never. As Christian commentary site LifeWay points out:
Pastors often endorse candidates and take sides in elections. But since the rules went into affect in 1954, only one church — The Church at Pierce Creek, in Binghampton, New York — has lost its tax-exemption, and that was only temporary.
The Church at Pierce Creek ran newspaper ads against Bill Clinton during the 1992 presidential campaign. In response, the IRS revoked the church’s tax-exempt letter. After a long court battle, the church, now known as The Landmark Church, regained its tax-exempt status.
Recently, IRS enforcement of the ban on church politicking has stalled over a legal technicality. IRS rules state that a “regional commissioner” has to authorize a church investigation. But the IRS eliminated that job title years ago — meaning there’s no one at the agency who can approve an investigation.
Technically speaking, the IRS said in April it had resolved the title obstacle and promised to enforce its own rules… but we have yet to see any tax exemptions revoked. The uncomfortable truth is that though one might hope that these radically religious candidates might be quashed out legally if not by the electorate, it’s far from a guarantee. Brace yourselves, folks. The pastors are coming.
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