Rendering Unto Caesar

Rob Boston May/June 2011

Cornerstone World Outreach Church in Sious City, Iowa, is a boxy and unimposing structure that looks more like a suburban high school that the focal point for  a full-scale revolt against the Internal Revenue Service. Yet thats exactly what's brewing behind the church's door, thanks to Pastor Cary K. Gordon and his war against the Iowa Supreme Court. Gordon got angry in 2009, when the Iowa high court voted unanimously to strike down the state's ban on same-sex marriage. As Election Day 2010 approached, the Pentecostal pastor hatched a plan to retaliate.

In Iowa, justices on the seven-member high court must take part in retention elections every eight years. Three justices would be on the ballot in November, and Gordon aimed to mobilize churches across the state and take the judges out. As Gordon saw it, if enough pastors instructed their congregants to vote against the judges, the trio would go down—so he began mailing letters to religious leaders all over the state, imploring them to jump into the campaign.

"Pastors who join this effort are asked to commit to confront the injustice and ungodly decisions of the Iowa Supreme Court by boldly calling upon their flocks to 'vote no on judicial retention' for the three consecutive Sundays prior to Election Day," wrote Gordon to more than 1,000 Iowa clergy.

The church-sponsored scheme—dubbed "Project Jeremiah"—had one big drawback: It's illegal. Under federal law, churches and other nonprofit groups are barred from intervening in elections by endorsing or opposing candidates.

Gordon was well aware of the law, but decided to plow ahead anyway. In somewhat lurid language he beseeched his fellow pastors to openly violate the law. "Secular fundamentalists in the United States know the same thing Hitler knew," wrote Gordon. "The only thing that stands in their way of a total takeover of our American culture, the final removal of any mention of God from the public arena, and the shredding of the last remains of our Judeo-Christian value system, is the church of Jesus Christ."

Not all Iowa religious leaders were enchanted by the idea. Inevitably, complaints began filtering in. A defiant Gordon vowed to press ahead.

"The orthodox Christian pastors of Iowa do not and cannot recognize, with regard to the definition of marriage, the imaginary authority of the Iowa Supreme Court," Gordon wrote in a rambling e-mail statement that he distributed to the media. "History has already shown who inevitably wins when state wages war against the authority of the church of the living God. So let the battle between state and church begin."

Elsewhere in the statement, which was headlined "A Pastoral Letter to a Kangaroo Court," Gordon asserted, "Based upon the arguments posed by those who support gay marriage, it is a strong possibility that some of our Supreme Court justices do not believe in a God."

Gordon also told several reporters that he hopes the IRS moves against him. He said he regularly prays, "Dear God, please allow the IRS to attack my church, so I can take them all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court."

The Sioux City pastor's decision to jump into the retention election didn't surprise some locals. Gordon has long been active in Iowa politics and runs a church-affiliated group called the PeaceMakers Institute, which holds 501(c)(4) status, enabling it to be more political. He has also formed a political action committee called Sioux Citizens for Responsible Government, which has intervened in local elections.

Earlier this year some Sioux City residents expressed alarm after it was reported that five of the 11 members of the city's Human Rights Commission were either members or former members of Cornerstone Church.

But the anti-judge effort marked the first time Gordon had dragged his church into electoral politics—and it received a mixed reception.

Jeff Mullen, senior pastor of Point of Grace Church in Waukee, was eager to sign up and went so far as to create a special Web site attacking the Iowa jurists— Mullen also joined forces with the Faith and Freedom Coalition, a new group launched by former Christian Coalition director Ralph Reed.

But Dan Lozer, who pastors United Church of Christ congregations in Sioux City and Hawarden, was wary of the Gordon overture. Lozer told the Sioux City Journal that he received Gordon's letter but didn't even finish reading it. Churches that want to endorse or oppose candidates, Lozer said, should first surrender their tax exemption.

Nonprofit groups have been barred from endorsing or opposing candidates since 1954, when then-Senator Lyndon B. Johnson sponsored an amendment to the tax code stating that any groups receiving 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status could not intervene in elections.

Most pastors happily abide by the rule, seeing intervention in electoral politics as a distraction and a potentially divisive factor for their congregations.

But around the country a handful of pastors are in open revolt. They insist that advising congregants on how to vote in elections—from local races all the way up to the White House—is part of their job description.

In Oklahoma, Baptist pastor Paul Blair has openly defied the law by endorsing candidates from the pulpit of his Fairview Baptist Church. In fact, Blair is a repeat offender. He endorsed U.S. Senator John McCain for president in 2008 and Republican candidate Mary Fallin for governor in 2010. Both times Blair taunted the IRS to come after him.

Blair's electioneering stunts were part of a larger effort sponsored by the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), an Arizona-based Religious Right legal group.

Founded by television and radio preachers in 1993, the ADF calls its scheme "Pulpit Freedom Sunday." The group insists that pastors have the right to be partisan in the pulpit and urges them to simply ignore the federal law. On September 26, 2010, about 100 pastors allegedly took part, although it's unclear how many actually endorsed candidates from the pulpit (as opposed to discussing issues, which is legal).

In South Dakota the ADF listed the Church at the Gate in Sioux Falls as a participant. But Pastor Steve Hickey told the Rapid City Journal he did not endorse any candidates that Sunday.

Blair, however, did not waffle. The Oklahoma preacher not only confirmed his participation—he crowed that the IRS has never sanctioned him for his 2008 endorsement of McCain.

"In two years we haven't heard anything from them," Blair said. "Obviously, if we were doing something illegal we would have heard from them. We haven't."

Blair may be living on borrowed time. The IRS has been restructuring its internal policies for dealing with church audits—a crucial first step for any investigation of a house of worship. A Minnesota church that was being investigated by the IRS for financial irregularities successfully sued the tax agency in 2006, asserting that the tax agency had not followed proper procedures for authorizing church audits.

In the wake of that ruling, the IRS announced new guidelines for examining houses of worship. The guidelines are still in play and, once implemented, could allow the IRS to proceed with investigating such congregations as Blair's.

The IRS is apparently keeping an eye on things. The tax agency is notoriously reticent about commenting publicly on specific allegations of pulpit politicking, but a recent ABC story on Pulpit Freedom Sunday quoted Robert Marvin, an IRS spokesman, who said, "We are aware of recent press reports, and will monitor the situation and take action as appropriate."

In the past, the IRS has been more aggressive about enforcing the law. In 1992 the Church at Pierce Creek near Binghamton, New York, lost its tax-exempt status after placing a full-page ad in USA Today insisting that it was a sin to vote for Bill Clinton for president.

The church, represented by attorneys with TV preacher Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice, sued the IRS but lost. In Branch Ministries v. Rossotti, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in 2000 ruled unanimously against the church, upholding the IRS's right to revoke tax exemption in these cases.

Most clergy know that their congregations contain members of diverse political views. Few pastors are willing to risk alienating congregants and dividing their flocks by endorsing or opposing candidates. (In 2004 a Baptist pastor in North Carolina named Chan Chandler told his congregation that members who had supported John Kerry for president should quit. Instead, the congregation decided Chandler should leave.)

Polls also show that the overwhelming majority of the men and women sitting in the pews don't see houses of worship as appropriate vehicles for partisan activity.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reported recently that 70 percent of Americans "oppose churches and houses of worship endorsing specific candidates for public office." The survey also showed that more than half of every major religious group opposed such endorsements.

And, despite all of the ADF's fulminating about pastors being "gagged" or "muzzled," many religious leaders say they can't fathom why they would want to link their churches to a politician's campaign.

Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty in Washington, D.C., told Associated Baptist Press that the ADF stunt is "misguided" and "unnecessarily divisive." He called it a threat to the integrity of the church.

"In every church I know of, it would be like setting off a bombshell in the sanctuary for the preacher to tell the congregants how to pull the lever in the voting booth," Walker said. "It would be incredibly corrosive of the church's true mission to spread the gospel and be salt and light in the culture."

Added Walker, "As soon as the church throws in with a particular candidate or party, its prophetic edge is blunted."

That's not likely to persuade Pastor Gordon in Sioux City. In fact, he's feeling emboldened. Gordon's anti-judge campaign, which received support from the Family Research Council and the National Organization for Marriage (which blitzed the state in a bright-purple bus called the "Judge Bus"), was a success: On election day, all three judges—Chief Justice Marsha Ternus and Justices David Baker and Michael Streit—failed to garner more than 50 percent and will have to leave the court.

What the IRS thinks about church involvement in those results remains to be seen.

Rob Boston is assistant editor of Church & State magazine, published by Americans United for Separation of Church and State in Washington, D.C.

Article Author: Rob Boston