The Quest for Power and InfluenceGerald L. Zelizer May/June 2003
Illustrations by Laura Stutzman
Last fall the House of Representatives defeated a bill that would have allowed religious institutions and their clergy to endorse political candidates without risking their tax-exempt status. Proponents, though, vowed to resurrect the bill during the 108th Congress, which convened in January this year. Representative Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.) proclaimed in defeat, "We must not allow a government institution to have this kind of chilling effect over America's churches. Today we took a very important step toward bringing the freedom of speech back to our pulpits. From the first day of the 108th Congress I will continue this fight, because I believe this, a battle that can be won and will be won. Congress must return First Amendment rights to our houses of worship."
Under current law, if a charitable group—including religious organizations—elects to have a 501(c)(3) tax-preferred status, the group is tax-exempt, and donors can deduct their contributions. At the same time, the organization that elects tax exemption is prohibited from direct political activity and direct endorsement of candidates. Under the Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act, HR 2357, the ban would no longer be absolute. Political activity and endorsement would be barred only if it was a "substantial part of their activities." Houses of worship would be permitted to engage in direct political endorsement and continue to be tax-exempt. The bill failed by 239-178, led by Democrats who were joined by 46 Republicans. Nevertheless, a significant number voted in favor. This should raise our antennae to anticipate and resist repeat efforts in the current session of Congress.
The defeat prior to elections in November did not prevent proponents from finding alternative ways to make their political preferences known. In Maryland, for instance, Robert Ehrlich, the Republican candidate for governor, was invited to speak about his candidacy at the Silver Spring Jewish Center immediately following religious services on a major Jewish holiday. Although the center's rabbi, Herzel Kranz, did not specifically endorse Ehrlich's candidacy, he later acknowledged to me that "all understood why Ehrlich was there and why his Democratic opponent, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, lieutenant governor, was not invited." This was an endorsement by implication.
Such implicit endorsements by religious leaders are common. Clergy find loopholes and indirect techniques to endorse the candidates they believe will further their moral and religious agendas. They claim their actions are justified because of the important role religion has to play in issues of the day and because the church should enjoy free speech too.
Politics from the pulpit, according to Pastor William Phillips, of Faithway Baptist Church in Ypsilanti, Michigan, has galvanized
Americans on matters as diverse as the revolution, taxation, and slavery. Under current law, he argues, "the church is the only major body that is censored when it comes to exercising the free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment in this country."
But do we really want our religious leaders and churches to become power brokers to be courted by candidates and political parties at election time? I think not.
Clergy and their churches already have other ways to address important issues of our times—school prayer, homosexuality, right to die, abortion, and the death penalty—that are free of political entanglements.
Encouraging religious endorsement of candidates undermines the moral authority of religious leaders rather than enhancing it, as some claim. Getting involved in the endorsement process engages members of the clergy in the bargaining, trade-offs, compromises, and favors inherent to politics. That detracts from, rather than adds to, religion's prophetic voice. Our points of view have greater influence if they address issues, not candidates.
The nexus of religion and politics has a long history. Many religious leaders, instead of shying away from the political spotlight, have used their religious standing to promote political issues of importance to their followers; the Reverends Martin Luther King, Jr., and Jesse Jackson come to mind, as does the Reverend Jerry Falwell.
But the "techniques" that were used during last November's elections exceeded merely the promotion of issues. There's also plenty of evidence that it involved circuitous ways of endorsing candidates.
Endorsement as a Byproduct. Candidates are often invited to address a religious service about their own religious faith. For example, in the last North Carolina senatorial election, Elizabeth Dole visited no less than a dozen churches to "give witness" to her Christian faith. She received accolades from many of the pastors for translating her religious principles on such issues as school prayer and abortion. While her candidacy may not have been directly endorsed from the pulpit, it was clear why she was there and why pastors were so effusive in their praise.
The Wink Method. The Reverend C. Welton Gaddy, executive director of the Interfaith Alliance and pastor of Northminster church of Monroe, Louisiana, tells of a pastor who called him at radio station KREF in Oklahoma City to tell of attending a pastors' policy briefing on politics led by a well-known and politically active religious leader. The clergyman explained how he would invite candidates to worship services and tell his congregation, "I am supporting this candidate, but you don't have to."
Endorsement Off the Pulpit. Some ministers endorse a candidate through a letter on personal stationery rather than that of the church. Or they do something similar to what Pastor Phillips of Ypsilanti did. Phillips put a bumper sticker on his car supporting the candidacy of Dick Posthumus, who was running for governor of Michigan. "Everyone knows who the car belongs to and which church I am pastor of," he admits. And, he adds, at his church "we only announce meetings on political points of view that we agree with." Similarly, prior to last November's election, Governor George Pataki, of New York, made a 12-hour whirlwind tour of Jewish Hasidic strongholds, from Brooklyn to Kiryas Joel, in Rockland County. In each he visited the local Hasidic rabbi. These charismatic rabbis are emulated slavishly by their followers on matters from religion to politics. Although the visit was usually in a home or a place of Torah study and not technically using a pulpit, the effect was the same. Governor Pataki was supported by an estimated 95 percent of the Hasidic community in his successful reelection bid.
Endorsement of local candidates is usually not as visible to the IRS as are congressional elections. But if former Representative Tip O'Neill's quip that "all politics is local" is accurate, local endorsements may be the most significant of all. Take, for example, the school board race in Fort Bend County, Texas, in April of 2002. Usually in these kinds of elections, incumbents coast to victory. But incumbents in Fort Bend were challenged by three newcomers who were all active in the same fundamentalist church. According to the Katy Sun newspaper, the candidates denied that they were voting as a bloc. "I'm not running as a Powerhouse church candidate," the newspaper quoted David Farrell as saying. "I'm running because I want the best education for my children." Nevertheless, the report continues, their campaign flyers were available at the reception desk in the foyer of the 1,500-member church. According to local resident Debbie Simon, the minister encouraged members to vote for the three church candidates.
The Reverend Walter E. Fainter, a retired member of Congress and pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church, in Washington, D.C., acknowledges that the laity of his church looks to him to interpret political issues and endorse candidates. He explains that forays into partisan politics by clergy "translates belief into public policy among those who have the least." That's especially true, he says, in five key areas: income, education, health care, housing, and justice. He explains that parishioners in the Black church "trust their pastor to analyze political issues on these grounds on their behalf. The pastor has the right as a faith leader to interpret the word as he sees fit."
Proponents such as Fainter and James Kennedy, senior minister of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, argue that restrictions on 501(c)(3) corporate entities in 1954 deprived clergy of the rights of speech under the First Amendment that are guaranteed to all other citizens. They protest that President Johnson was concerned with influential anti-Communist organizations threatening his senate reelection. So, according to Kennedy's testimony before Congress, "he figured out that the best way to deal with these 'special interests' was to silence them." This reversed a 300-year practice of churches and clergy playing vital roles in the political development of the nation. Nineteenth-century historian John Wingate Thornton said that "in a very great degree, to the pulpit, to the Puritan pulpit, we owe the moral force which won our independence. During the
Revolutionary Era it was graduates of Yale and Harvard, serving in churches across New England, who laid out the theology of resistance that made war with England inevitable. In the mid-nineteenth century, evangelical Christians were primary agents in shaping American political culture. Americans forget that nearly two thirds of the abolitionist movement at one time consisted of pastors."
Proponents of the change also claim that the Internal Revenue Service in 1992 singled out the Church at Pierce Creek in Vestal, New York, for placing a newspaper ad warning Christians not to vote for Bill Clinton as president. Three years later the IRS revoked the church's tax exemption. At the same time, they charge, the IRS took no action in 1994 when then New York Mayor Mario Cuomo campaigned for reelection at the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Harlem. Reverend Kennedy sums up this way: "Therefore we have a situation where those in this country who have the greatest vested interest in maintaining the morality and decency of the country are gagged when it comes to election time."
But are religious leaders really gagged? The issue is not whether they are gagged, but whether they should endorse candidates while still enjoying the benefits of tax exemption. After all, tax exemption means that the U.S. government and ultimately the American taxpayer are subsidizing the beneficiary of exemption. Why should the tax revenues of citizens be utilized in effect to promote the politics of a particular party or candidate? Citizens who wish to do so can make direct contributions to those candidates. A church or minister can enjoy the freedom bestowed by the First Amendment and endorse political candidates—if the church relinquishes its tax exempt status. Of course, at all times churches and clergy may address the issues as long as they do not connect an issue to a particular candidate. This is called "issue advocacy."
Certainly religion should examine political issues. The examples of church involvement in the political process of America involved endorsement of issues such as revolution, abolition of slavery, and civil rights. Even then clergy were not endorsing candidates. Steven Miller, director of the IRS exempt organizations division, reports that in the past 25 years only two churches and five religious organizations have lost their tax-exempt status over political issues. The current law has probably prevented many others who would have also employed circuitous methods of political endorsement.
Yale law professor and evangelical Stephen Carter argued in his 1993 book The Culture of Disbelief that religious Americans have been marginalized and depicted as fanatics in order to keep their views out of democratic politics. On the other hand, in his last book, God's Name in Vain, he cautions that religion loses its power to be a moral witness if it is involved in the nitty-gritty of daily political struggles. Great moral conflicts—such as the fight against slavery—require indirect political action. But Carter believes that both the civil rights movement and the Christian Coalition were sullied and co-opted by remaining with politics for too long a time.
Churches and members of the clergy who support specific political candidates risk polarizing religious institutions. For example, the current president of my synagogue is a member of the local Republican Committee. The immediate past president was on the committee to elect the then Democratic candidate for governor, James McGreevy. What right do I have as a rabbi to declare myself in the camp of one and alienate the other? The discord that I would sow would diminish my religious authority and pastoral relationship with one or the other.
And the dissension would flow outward, too. Cooperation and better understanding among different religious faiths are cornerstones of religion as it is practiced in America. Both are at risk if the use of oblique political endorsements by churches and clergies becomes even more widespread. Imagine Islamic mosques indirectly endorsing a pro-Palestinian candidate, synagogues a pro-Israeli one, Methodist churches a pro-choice politician, and Catholic churches a pro-life candidate. The
combustion from the political differences would surely divide religions in America, which is already fractured by other divisions based on theological, racial, and economic differences.
That's why, as Representative John Lewis (D-Ga.) often points out, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., as
passionate as he was for social issues, never endorsed a candidate.
Gerald L. Zelizer is rabbi of the Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen, New Jersey.