With a pivotal election five weeks away, leaders on the religious right have launched an all-out drive to get Christians from pew to voting booth. Their target: the nearly 30 million Americans who attend church at least once a week but did not vote in 2004.
Their efforts at times push legal limits on church involvement in partisan campaigns. That is by design. With control of Congress at stake Nov. 7, those guiding the movement say they owe it to God and to their own moral principles to do everything they can to keep social conservatives in power.
Preachers "ought to put their toe right on the line," said Mathew D. Staver, founder of Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit law firm that supports conservative Christian causes.
The Rev. Rick Scarborough, a leading evangelical in Texas, has recruited 5,000 "patriot pastors" nationwide to promote an agenda that aligns neatly with Republican platforms. "We urge them to avoid legal entanglement, but there are times in a pastor's life when he needs to take a biblical stand," Scarborough said. "Our higher calling is to Christ."
The campaign encourages individual pastors to use sermons, Bible studies and rallies to drive Christians to the polls -- and, by implication or outright endorsement, to Republican candidates. One online guide to discussing the election in church, produced by the Focus on the Family ministry, offers this tip: If a congregant says her top concerns are healthcare and national security, suggest that Jesus would make abortion and gay marriage priorities.
At a recent rally in Pennsylvania, Focus on the Family founder James C. Dobson told a crowd of 3,000 that it would be "downright frightening" if Republicans lost control of Congress. If there's a good Christian on the ballot, he said, failing to vote "would be a sin."
The law restricting political activity of churches and charities dates to 1954, when then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson pushed it through in a pique of anger over a nonprofit's effort to derail his reelection. Tax-exempt organizations, including churches, may not participate or intervene in political campaigns on behalf of any candidate. Intervention is broadly defined as "any and all activities that favor or oppose one or more candidate for public office," according to the Internal Revenue Service.
That sounds straightforward. In practice, though, there are many ways around the restriction, as the faithful recognize.
"If the pastor is doing the right job, the people will automatically vote for the right person," said Gale Wollenberg, who belongs to a conservative evangelical church in Topeka, Kan.
Perhaps the biggest loophole is that churches can campaign on policy issues -- even if that effort benefits a particular candidate. Scarborough, for instance, has spent a great deal of time far from his Texas parish, rallying Christian voters against an initiative promoting embryonic stem-cell research in Missouri. At his events, Scarborough makes a point not to mention Missouri's Republican Sen. Jim Talent, who is in a tight fight for reelection.
But in private, he says candidly that he expects -- and hopes -- his efforts will give Talent a boost. "If a pro-life candidate benefits from Christians being involved, to God be the glory," Scarborough said.
Pastors can further help their favored candidates by distributing "issue-oriented" voter guides in church, a tactic used for years among secular (often left-leaning) groups such as the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and adapted to faith communities by the Christian Coalition in the 1990s.
The voter pamphlets are supposed to be neutral, but often present issues through a distinctly partisan lens. A guide distributed by a conservative group in Minnesota in 2004 laid out the candidates' views on aborting "unborn babies." One produced this year by the liberal evangelical group Sojourners describes immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops as the only way to bring peace to Iraq.
Pastors have a right to work directly for candidates on their own time, as long as they don't use church resources. In a recent article aimed at evangelical preachers, Staver wrote that they "should feel free" to go even further and endorse a candidate from the pulpit because he thought the IRS law was unconstitutional. He repeatedly noted that the IRS had rarely sanctioned churches. The Church at Pierce Creek in Binghamton, N.Y., is the only one ever to lose its tax-exempt certification, for sponsoring newspaper ads that opposed presidential candidate Bill Clinton.
Far more often, IRS agents resolve complaints by training church leaders to avoid future missteps, said Lois G. Lerner, who directs the IRS unit for tax-exempt groups. In 2004, the IRS resolved dozens of complaints this way, including such blatant violations as churches donating to a candidate's campaign or placing political signs on their property.