By the Rules?

Albert J. Menendez May/June 1997

Whether opposing the British or abortion, whether supporting abolition or tax cuts, whether seeking to end child labor or kiddie porn, religious activists have always been a part of American politics. History has shown that whatever separation of church and state has meant, it obviously hasn't meant - nor was it ever intended to mean - that religious people, or even religious organizations, should not be involved in the political process.

Religious participation in politics has, however, greatly changed since the Quakers, Roman Catholics, and Methodists unveiled their religious lobbies in Washington, D.C., around World War I. Today more religious organizations are intimately engaged in the political process than ever before. Some organizations actively lobby members of Congress, or inundate congressional offices and committees with letters expressing support for or opposition to specific legislation; some publish ratings of the members, based on issues they have selected as critical to their concerns. And one even distributes highly selective voter guides to millions of churchgoers at crucial times during the electoral season, usually on the Sunday preceding the general election.

It is this aspect of religious politics, that of the voter guides in churches (among other things), that has roused the Federal Election Commission (FEC). In late summer of 1996 the FEC filed a complaint in federal court against Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition (CC) for violation of the Federal Election Campaign Act, which requires disclosure of the sources and uses of funds for federal elections, provides public financing of presidential campaigns, and sets limits on campaign contributions (additional regulations and amendments allow the FEC to set limits on the political activities of tax-exempt organizations). Though the complaint is primarily directed at the organization's conduct relating to the preparation and distribution of supposedly nonpartisan "voters' guides," which rate members of Congress's votes on key issues of interest to the coalition, the FEC charges that the CC had also been giving improper financial aid to Republican candidates, including George Bush's 1992 presidential campaign.

"During the campaign periods prior to the 1990, 1992, and 1994 elections," the suit said, "the Christian Coalition made expenditures, directly from its corporate treasury and/or through its subordinate state affiliates, to influence the election of candidates for federal office....These expenditures, discussed below, constitute in-kind contributions to the candidates and campaigns for federal office by a corporation in violation of 2 U.S. C. Section 441b."

The suit alleged too that the CC made illegal campaign contributions in various state elections, including the campaign of Jesse Helms in North Carolina, Oliver North in Virginia, and Newt Gingrich in Georgia. All are Republicans.

The problem arises because the Christian Coalition enjoys a provisional 501(c)(3) status, which regulates its permissible political activities. Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code mandates that an organization wishing to be tax-exempt under the law cannot "participate in, or interfere in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office."

Though certain kinds of voter education programs are permissible for those with this tax-exempt status, partisan political activity is expressly prohibited -- the exact activity that the FEC and other monitors claim the Christian Coalition engages in.

"On September 26, 1992," the suit says, "the commission, by the affirmative vote of at least four of its members, found probable cause to believe that the defendant Christian Coalition violated provisions of the Act."

The Wall Street Journal's Glenn R. Simpson and University of Virginia political scientist Larry J. Sabato concluded that the CC guides (some 45 million distributed in the 1996 election) "give every appearance of having been designed with the explicit intention of influencing voter decisions in favor of Republicans."

The entire CC fund-raising program may be in trouble too (the CC's suspended chief financial officer claimed that she had been asked by the organization's director, Ralph Reed, to hide a ,000 donation given the organization in behalf of George Bush in 1992). As Glenn Simpson observed in the September 16, 1996, Wall Street Journal: "While the Christian Coalition is organized under the tax laws as a nonpartisan social welfare organization, its tax status hasn't been formally approved by the Internal Revenue Service." Simpson also reported that the CC's "big-donor program is shrouded in secrecy, and its officials refused several requests for information."

The Christian Coalition denies the charges. CC spokesman Mike Russell said that the suit was "a completely baseless and legally threadbare attempt by a reckless federal agency to silence people of faith and deny them their First Amendment rights."

"We are absolutely confident," said Ralph Reed, "that the courts will affirm that people of faith have every right to be involved as citizens and voters."

Maybe. But to even the most unbiased observer the CC does seem to favor the Republican Party. For example, 112 of the House Republicans scored 100 on the CC ratings, meaning they voted in support of the coalition's position on all 13 issues selected. By contrast, 94 Democrats scored zero, meaning that they never supported a single CC position. Only one House Democrat, Ralph Hall of Texas, scored 100.

In the Senate the story is similar, though with a little less polarization. Of the Republicans, 28 received a perfect score on the 11 positions chosen, while five Democrats scored zero.

Combining the average approval percentages for both parties in both houses yields additional reasons for the concerns about a GOP/CC connection: the average agreement rating for Republicans was 89.7 percent in the House and 85.5 percent in the Senate; for Democrats it was 15.2 percent in the House and 17.7 percent in the Senate. The data shows that while nearly half of Congressional Republicans (48.6 percent) scored 100 on the CC ratings, 40.7 percent of Democrats received a zero.

Do these numbers reveal a deliberate partisanship? According to conservative columnist Cal Thomas, the numbers simply show that the CC "cares about issues with which mainly Republicans identify. Is that the fault of the Christian Coalition?"

It's not. In fact, if Republicans were politically and ideologically closer to the Christian Coalition positions, then no doubt the statistics on its voter guides would reflect that affinity. After all, that is what democracy is all about.

Unfortunately, it's not that simple. Some have charged that the voter guides are deliberately skewed in a way that favors specific candidates. In their 1996 book Dirty Little Secrets, Sabato and Simpson raise serious questions about the ethics of the Christian Coalition's election guides and its repetitive claims of nonpartisanship. They said the organization's tactics are "characterized neither by Christian charity nor by adherence to the spirit of the law." They charge the group's voter guides with consistent "manipulations, distortions, and outright falsehoods."

"By systematically rigging the content of its voter guides to help Republican candidates, the group had essentially donated hundreds of thousands of dollars (perhaps millions) in free advertising to the Republican Party." They add, "There are also indications that Christian Coalition members coordinated their activities with Republican campaigns and sometimes even actually worked in those campaigns. . . . It is indisputable that the leaders of the Christian Coalition are themselves partisan Republicans."

The Christian Coalition voter guides, say Sabato and Simpson, are dishonest. "Rather than simply seeking to inform voters of where candidates stand on the issues, the guides give every appearance of having been designed with the explicit intention of influencing voting decisions in favor of Republicans."

For example, critics contend that the CC did everything from outright lie about candidates' positions to manipulating questions on the guides in order to favor its preferred choice.

"If two candidates in district A," wrote Sabato and Simpson, "agreed on abortion for instance, that issue was dropped from the guide; in its place was something they disagreed on, gays in the military, perhaps. If the two candidates in district B agreed on gays in the military but not on abortion, abortion would be used and gays in the military would be dropped."

In fact, though opposition to abortion is supposedly one of the Christian Coalition's biggest concerns - the issue never appeared on millions of voter guides.

Despite the charges, the CC maintains that it is not a partisan organization and that its purpose is to "speak out against the anti-Christian bigotry we see in the news coverage, in the political debate, and in many other areas of American life." On the voter guide itself is the disclaimer that: "This Scorecard is for informational purposes only and is not intended to influence the outcome of any election. Christian Coalition does not advocate the election or defeat of any candidate, and does not endorse any political party." Other indications, however, tend to make that claim seem blatantly false (see next article).

In his recent book Active Faith Ralph Reed essentially denied his own claims of nonpartisanship. "Religious conservatives," Reed wrote, "have invested too much blood and treasure in the hard-earned gains they have won in the Republican party since the late 1970s. To simply walk away from that union, which has endured for almost 20 years and produced several electoral landslides, will take more than a family squabble."

The Christian Coalition, of course, has every right to participate in the political process. After all, it is one of the players in a movement that represents the aspirations and convictions of 15 to 20 percent of the electorate.

To be sure, the coalition's scorecard gives a Religious Right spin to many issues, which suggests that its support or opposition to proposed legislation is often conditioned on its religio-cultural outlook. Again, that's perfectly legal: any group, even a religious one, interested in affecting the political process will naturally reflect the values it holds. That's not the problem. The problem is that because of its tax status, there are certain restrictions that the CC must abide by, restrictions that the FEC charges the Christian Coalition has skirted in various elections.

Talking about the Christian Coalition's political actions, FEC commissioner Trevor Potter wrote that "such political activity is entirely legitimate and the cornerstone of democracy." He stressed that "the Christian Coalition should play by the same rules as everyone else in the political battlefield - or at least every other interest group which supports and opposes candidates for federal office."

The Christian Coalition, representing a considerable segment of the American electorate, certainly has a role in the marketplace of political ideas. Yet as an organization purporting to represent religious values, the CC has an especially high obligation to preserve honesty, civility, and fairness as it seeks - in the best religious tradition since the Revolutionary War - to make its voice heard in the political arena. So far, to a reasonable observer, they appear to have failed that ethical test.

Albert J. Menendez is associate director of Americans for Religious Liberty.

Article Author: Albert J. Menendez