A reporter’s guide to voter guides

Every election cycle, religious organizations are busy distributing voter guides to inform the faithful about issues and candidates. They appear at a time when the IRS is closely monitoring politicking by churches and when high-profile public policy issues are entwined with religious values. In recent years, religious groups with more liberal political orientations have started producing guides, which have long been used primarily by conservative Christians. And all groups are benefiting from the Internet, where guides are posted for downloading by groups and individuals in anticipation November elections.

Voter guides have generated frequent controversies over allegations that they come too close to politicking on behalf of a particular candidate or party, in violation of IRS rules. When proved, such politicking endangers a religious organization’s tax-exempt status. Experts say most groups seem to have learned from past mistakes, however, and now produce carefully crafted guides that communicate their message without crossing legal boundaries.

Background

For decades many secular groups, often on the liberal side of the spectrum, used voter guides to influence Americans on issues ranging from the environment to civil rights, and many continue to do so. In 1992 the Christian Coalition, long a mainstay of the so-called “Religious Right,” became the first religious group to issue its own guide to candidates and issues.

While the Christian Coalition and similar conservative religious groups have been investigated and penalized by the IRS, some liberal religious organizations are also coming under scrutiny as the nation’s political temperature has risen in recent years over hot-button issues such as Iraq and terror policies.

In September 2006, for example, All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, Calif., refused to comply with IRS demands that it turn over materials related to an investigation of the church for allowing a guest speaker who strongly criticized President Bush. The case has been a lightning rod for protests against the IRS by church groups across the political spectrum, as a Sept. 22, 2006, Los Angeles Times story shows.

IRS guidelines allow churches to publish voter guides, but they are not allowed to endorse a particular person or party. What constitutes an improper endorsement is a judgment call. But through the years, several groups — such as the Christian Coalition in 1999 — have had their tax-exempt status revoked for a period of time. Read the 2006 IRS article “Charities, Churches and Politics,” which includes history, facts and links to reports and rules on the IRS ban on political activity by churches and charities. The IRS routinely issues reminders about its rules in election years. This year’s reminder was issued in June.

According to a Sept. 18, 2006, story in The New York Times, the IRS reported in February that nearly half of the 110 tax-exempt organizations it investigated after the 2004 elections were churches. The IRS said 37 of 40 cases it completed against the churches showed violations of the law, but the churches were issued warnings or hit with an excise tax, and none lost their tax-exempt status.

The impetus for the ban on church politicking was, of all things, Texas politics. The IRS ban dates from a 1954 law that was passed at the behest of then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson, who was angry at efforts by a Texas nonprofit group to defeat him. The law says tax-exempt entities such as houses of worship and charities must refrain from what the IRS defines as “any and all activities that favor or oppose one or more candidate for public office.”

Voter guides, initiatives and political statements

Conservative Christians

  • iVoteValues.org program

    The iVoteValues.com program is an initiative launched in 2004 by Richard Land of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. iVoteValues.com aims to register conservative Christian voters (2 million by 2008, according to Land) and offer voter guides and educational information to inform their voting choices. The program says it provides “up-to-date information on every political candidate seeking office on the state and national level in the U.S.” and that it can provide resources to churches that are “well within” the Internal Revenue Service guidelines for tax-exempt religious groups.

  • Truth in Action Ministries

    Truth in Action Ministries is the Florida-based church and Christian media network founded by D. James Kennedy, a prominent conservative Christian activist. Truth in Action has a number of programs aimed at registering Christian voters and encouraging them to vote for candidates who share their values.

    Contact: 800-988-7884.
  • Christian Coalition of America

    The Christian Coalition of America is one of the original and most ambitious organizations to deploy voter guides. The group has diminished in influence in recent years, but it still produces the most complete set of voter guides by state for conservative Christians.

Liberal Christians

  • Red Letter Christians

    Red Letter Christians is an organization of self-described “progressive Christian leaders” that takes its name from the ink color used in some bibles to set off the words of Jesus. The organization is the brainchild of Jim Wallis, a leading liberal evangelical voice and founder of Call to Renewal and Sojourners magazine, and Tony Campolo. Red Letter Christians aims to distribute voter guides and other information.

  • Interfaith Alliance

    The Interfaith Alliance is the national nonpartisan advocacy voice of the interfaith movement. Media inquiries can be submitted through a form on the alliance’s website.

    Contact: 202-265-3000.

Roman Catholics

Mainline Protestants

  • Presbyterian Church (USA)

    The Presbyterian Church (USA) is the largest Presbyterian body in the United States.

    The main denomination that publishes voter guides is the Presbyterian Church (USA). Its Office of Public Witness gives an overview of past PCUSA statements on the political responsibilities of Presbyterians and provides resources on specific issues and “do’s and don’ts” regarding political activity by congregations.

  • The National Council of Churches USA: Darfur

    The National Council of Churches USA, representing mainline Protestant, Orthodox, African-American and peace churches, posted resources about its advocacy for Darfur.

    The National Council of Churches, whose members include mainline Protestants as well as African-American, Orthodox and Peace churches, published a document in 2004 titled “Christian Principles in an Election Year,” which remains its general statement on election campaigns. The document analyzes major topics in light of Christian thinking and offers resources such as study guides.

     

Other Christian organizations

  • Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon

    Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, an organization of 16 Christian denominations including Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox, published a “Ballot Measure Guide” (linked from its home page) for Oregon.

Other Groups

Other religious groups have tended to avoid issuing voter information, for various reasons. Some Jewish groups published voter literature in the 1990s in response to the Christian Coalition efforts, but that has not continued in any broad effort. Jewish leaders say that since the community generally opposes the involvement of religion in politics, the tactic did not suit their goals. They and others also noted the fear of running afoul of IRS rules.

Muslim groups also have not produced much voter education literature, and Islamic groups say they are more focused on voter registration drives. They have also tended to see voter guides and the like as a tool of the Christian right and do not want to be associated with such tactics.

Interestingly, African-American churches are among the most closely watched groups for campaign violations because churches, which are frequently the principal institution in black communities, often invite candidates to speak from their pulpits. But African-American churches are not known for producing extensive campaign-oriented literature, experts say.

Watchdog Groups

  • Americans United for Separation of Church and State

    Americans United for Separation of Church and State describes itself as a “nonpartisan organization dedicated to preserving church-state separation to ensure religious freedom for all Americans.”

    Americans United for Separation of Church and State is one of the more established groups that keeps tabs on whether churches or religious organizations step over the line when it comes to campaigning. It posts an FAQ on electioneering by houses of worship.

Related source guides

Resources