Saturday, January 05, 2008

The Great Law-Breaking Holiday

-- by Sara

Over at Street Prophets, commenter Coleridge Lite brought up something that Democratic field organizers probably ought to be paying close attention to:
I think there is a strong chance that there was a great deal of illegal preaching by tax-exempt pastors in Iowa last Sunday.

It might bear looking into on the next great right-wing feast day in your state, The Sunday Before the Primary. See also the great law-breaking season culminating in The Sunday Before General Election.

I think it is a fine thing to exhort one's congregation to their sacred duty as citizens of a free nation under God.

But the line is crossed if candidate's names are named, or if the flock is threatened with eternal judgment for the alleged "sin" of casting a vote on behalf of a candidate who is "anti-life" or "anti-marriage."
One of the most dangerous things about the fundamentalist mindset is that those afflicted with it will tend to put their interpretation of The Will of God above any other consideration. If you have to break man's law in order to enforce God's Will, then so be it. As the movement has grown in power and arrogance, its tendency to play fast and loose with the IRS's strict rules against politicking has risen right along with them. Seven years of good-'ol-boy winking and nudging from the Bush Administration have lulled many ministers on the religious right into a sense of invincibility on this front. They'll say what they want, confident (often wrongly so) that the IRS won't know, won't care, and certainly won't intervene.

With Huckabee in the race, the desperate urge to violate those rules will rise to the level of an overwhelming temptation. If Huck wins the nomination, local ministers who step forward early with strong support will find themselves right out in front of his organization. These next few weeks, they'll be testing the waters: if they get away with a little bit of politicking during the primary season, you just know they'll become more blatant in using their churches as Huckabee HQs as the year wears on. But if we catch these guys early and hold their feet to the fire, we can go a long way toward slowing down Huckabee's ground game across the country.

That's why there's vast quantities of long-term political hay to be made in sending observation teams around to Evangelical and fundamentalist churches in New Hampshire tomorrow morning. Organizers in other states should also be making plans to deploy their own watchers on the last Sunday before their own primaries and caucuses. That one Sunday, more than any other day, is where we're most likely to catch the religious right with their IRS exemptions down around their ankles.

The Southern Baptist Church, in particular, has been known to play very fast and loose about this kind of thing. Back in August, I blogged about the SBC's national vice president, Wiley Drake, who persisted in using church stationery to raise funds for Mike Huckabee even after he'd been called on the carpet by the church's attorney. Last fall, Drake finally found himself on the wrong end of an Americans United for Separation of Church and State lawsuit -- and responded by instructing his flock to curse the AU staffers responsible, in one of the more deranged right-wing moments of the year.

As Coleridge Lite suggests, it wouldn't be hard for progressives to make sure that Drake becomes the first of many. A well-executed observation campaign during both the primaries and the general election is the very definition of low-hanging fruit: it would be easy to organize, simple to execute -- and has the potential to do vicious damage to the religious right in general and the Huckabee campaign in particular. A few specific thoughts about how such a thing might be organized:

1. This can be done on the most local of levels. All you need is a couple of people per church. They must be willing to dress appropriately, behave discreetly, listen carefully, and take good corroborating notes of anything questionable that gets said. A pocket tape recorder is always nice to have. They do not have to introduce themselves around (though they should stand and sit when the congregation does, so as not to stand out), and should fade away quietly as soon as their task is done.

2. These observers should be fully briefed on what is and is not allowed. The relevant IRS regulations are described clearly at the AU website here; they might want to print this article out for reference. They should not only note what's being said from the pulpit; they should also scan literature tables for voter guides and other political materials that violate the rules.

3. If you can only monitor a few churches, start with your local Southern Baptist and Assembly of God churches. These two denominations have proven unusually arrogant in the face of IRS restrictions on political speech.

4. Pastors in small churches that aren't affiliated with large national organizations tend to have little or no training, are less likely to know where the lines are, and don't expect anyone to do oversight or hold them accountable. On the other hand, while megachurch pastors are typically better trained and will tend to be more cautious, those with sufficiently inflated egos and close connections to the GOP may be feel so impervious to investigation they'll say what's on their minds anyway, IRS rules be damned.

5. When violations are found, they should be reported directly to Americans United, which is the national clearinghouse for this issue. Their attorneys can take it from there.

6. The best-case scenario is that, with enough observers, we can find patterns of misbehavior that can allow for IRS charges to be filed not just against individual churches, but entire national denominations. The worst-case scenario is that we find nothing -- but local pastors are put on notice that they're being watched, and that local progressives are standing by to hold them accountable the first minute they turn their pulpits into political soapboxes for Reverend Huck. Either way, we win.

7. Make it fun. Pick a restaurant where everyone can gather for for a decompression-and-debriefing brunch afterward. A couple mimosas in the company of reality-based people can be a useful antidote to a morning spent with fundies.

If Huckabee's momentum continues, the country's Evangelical churches are going to be the local nuclei around which his campaign takes shape. These churches need to know, in no uncertain terms, that the days when the last Sunday before an election was the country's unofficial Great Law-Breaking Holiday are over.

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