Election Day is near, and 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. This year, religious groups with more liberal political orientations are producing guides, which have long been used by conservative Christians. And all groups are benefiting from the Internet, where guides are posted for downloading by groups and individuals in anticipation of Nov. 7 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.
- Conservative Christians
- Liberal Christians
- Roman Catholics
- Mainline Protestants
- Other Christians
- Other groups
- Watchdog groups
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.”
• 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.
• The Colorado-based organization Focus on the Family, led by James Dobson, has a related program called iVoteValues.org. Focus on the Family also produces brochures, church bulletin inserts, sermon points and other aids to encourage “values voting.”
• 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. The guides are available on the group’s Web site.
• Coral Ridge Ministries is the Florida-based church and Christian media network led by D. James Kennedy, a prominent conservative Christian activist. Coral Ridge has a number of programs aimed at registering Christian voters and encouraging them to vote for candidates who share their values. The ministry has a program called ChristianVotes.com, which offers detailed voters guides for many state races and issues.
• Red Letter Christians is a new 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. Red Letter Christians aims to set up offices in battleground states and distribute voter guides and other information.
• The Interfaith Alliance announced on Sept. 21, 2006, that it would distribute 20,000 pamphlets to churches, synagogues and mosques offering advice on how to comply with federal law regarding houses of worship and politics. The Interfaith Alliance, which counts 185,000 members nationwide, also offers a range of resources on the campaign under the heading “One Nation, Many Faiths.”
• A May 1, 2006, Religion Link edition, “The Religious ‘Left’ Reasserts Itself,” provides further resources for exploring the activities of liberal believers.
• Every four years since 1976, the U.S. Catholic bishops have issued a statement on the roles and responsibilities of Catholics in American public life. In 2003 the bishops approved a comprehensive statement, “Faithful Citizenship: A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility.” Through its Web site, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops also offers a host of resources for parishes and individuals.
• During the 2004 campaign, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops also issued a statement titled “Catholics in Political Life,” which sets out principles for Catholic candidates. On March 10, 2006, the bishops followed that up with a “Statement on Responsibilities of Catholics in Public Life.”
• A July 17, 2006, ReligionLink edition, “Will Catholics Swing Back to the Democrats?” explores these and related issues.
Voter guides from other Catholic groups include:
- “Voting for the Common Good: A Practical Guide for Conscientious Catholics,” prepared by Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good.
- “The 2006 Elections: Becoming a Global Good Neighbor,” prepared by the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, which operates under the auspices of the worldwide order of Maryknoll priests, nuns, brothers and lay missioners.
- “Voting With a Clear Conscience” by the Rev. Frank Pavone, head of Priests for Life, a vocal group in the Catholic campaign to end legal abortion.
- “Voter’s Guide for Serious Catholics,” prepared by Catholic Answers Action
• Most mainline denominations are not offering political guides or statements this year.
• The main denomination that is publishing such a guide is the Presbyterian Church (USA). Its “Christian & Citizen Election Year Resource” 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, 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.
• 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. Contact executive director David Leslie, 503-221-1054, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
• An online group called Rat Out A Church, dedicated to “ending radical left-wing politics in the pulpit,” is one of a number of groups that tries to point the IRS toward what it considers violations of the tax law. The group operates under the auspices of the Religious Freedom Coalition, which is headed by William Murray, son of the late founder of American Atheists, Madalyn Murray O’Hair. William Murray became a conservative Christian and was estranged from his mother.
• The American Center for Law and Justice offers a resource page on churches’ tax-exempt status (link from home page). ACLJ has frequently argued in court for the right of churches to engage in politics.
• 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.
Two ReligionLink issues offer background and sources:
• The push for more – or less – politicking from churches (Jan. 9, 2006)
• A guide to church-state experts and organizations
• An August 2006 Pew Center poll showed that about half of Americans (51 percent) say churches and other houses of worship “should express their views on day-to-day social and political questions” while 46 percent say they should not. That balance was largely unchanged from the previous year.
• Read “Politics and the Pulpit 2004: A Guide to the Internal Revenue Restrictions on the Political Activity of Religious Organizations” from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
• Read the First Amendment Center’s backgrounder on tax exemptions for religious groups, including FAQ and relevant court cases. The center also offers a Q&A on religion and politics from The Associated Press.
• Read a Sept. 29, 2006, Washington Post story, “Religious-Right Voter Guides Facing Challenge From Left.”
• See a Sept. 29, 2006, Catholic News Service story, “What’s a voter to do? Election guides offer different answers.” The CNS story focuses on Catholic groups but provides an overview of the issue.
• Read a Nov. 11, 1998, Baptist Standard article about a Purdue University sociologist’s take on how the IRS ban on church politicking came to be.
• About.com offers a collection of articles on religious tax exemption under its atheism category.