Wrapping the Cross in the Flag
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Last week's endorsement of George W. Bush by the Rev. Jerry Falwell in a newsletter published by Jerry Falwell Ministries, a charitable organization, has resurrected questions about the unholy alliance between politics and religion in a particularly combative election year. It comes on the heels of news about Bush campaign attempts to distribute voter materials in "friendly congregations," putting the churches' tax-exempt status in jeopardy.
An open letter from Americans United for Separation of Church and State to the IRS last Thursday accused Jerry Falwell Ministries, a tax-exempt non-profit, of unlawful partisan political activities as defined by federal tax law.
In a July 1 newsletter to supporters, Falwell wrote: "For conservative people of faith, voting for principle this year means voting for the re-election of George W. Bush. The alternative, in my mind, is simply unthinkable.
"To the pro-life, pro-family, pro-traditional marriage, pro-America voters in this nation, we must determine that President Bush is the man with our interests at heart. It is that simple."
Further on, Falwell urged readers to consider donating up to $5,000 to the Campaign for Working Families, a political action committee headed by Gary Bauer, calling it "the organization that I believe can have the greatest impact in re-electing Mr. Bush to the Oval Office." He also provided a web link to the PAC.
As a tax-exempt organization under section 501 c (3) of federal tax law, Falwell Ministries is prohibited from engaging in political lobbying, endorsing candidates, or cooperating with any organization whose express goal is the election or defeat of candidates. A common punishment for an organization deemed to have violated the rules is an excise tax, and possibly a revocation of tax-exempt status.
"Falwell is thumbing his nose at the IRS," says Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "He must not be permitted to use a tax-exempt ministry to engage in partisan politics. The vast majority of America's religious institutions play by the rules. He should too."
Falwell claims he was writing in his personal capacity and not on behalf of the organization, although there is no standard disclaimer to that effect anywhere in the newsletter "Falwell Confidential," which is distributed by Jerry Falwell Ministries. Falwell also asserted that the entire web site is owned by an affiliated lobbying group, Liberty Alliance, of which no record exists there or on the website of the Thomas Road Baptist Church, Falwell's religious headquarters in Lynchburg, VA.
Lobbying groups such as Liberty Alliance may engage in widespread electioneering but may not endorse candidates to the general public. Regardless, Falwell told The New York Times that the group "doesn't support candidates or endorse them."
Allegations of partisan politicking have dogged the Reverend for years, raising questions about whether he really believes in the separation of church and state. In 1993, the IRS fined Falwell's group $50,000 for donating money raised for charitable purposes by his nationally syndicated television show, "The Old Time Gospel Hour," to a PAC. The event is a matter of record; Falwell denies it ever happened.
In February 2000, Americans United called for an IRS investigation into Falwell's "People of Faith 2000" voter registration initiative, which targeted religious conservatives by distributing pertinent materials to pastors and congregants. Lynn called the project "highly partisan," referring to comments the televangelist made in reference to the initiative. "It is my experience that most people of faith in this country vote pro-family, pro-life, and that will mean George W. Bush," Falwell was quoted as saying.
From the days of his rise to prominence as a key player in the 1980 election to his conspicuous presence behind President Bush as he signed the partial-birth abortion ban into law, Falwell has straddled the low wall of separation between church and state, leveraging his ability to rally Christian fundamentalists to the polls in exchange for influence in Washington.
Falwell has been careful to pledge allegiance to the religious rights protected by the First Amendment (tempered once by the assertion that he believed in separation of church and state but not "God and state"). "I never wrap the cross in the flag," he has said.
Falwell founded Moral Majority in 1979 to activate the religious right, influence elections at all levels and lobby. It met with success early on, registering at least two million conservative voters before the election the following year. Falwell went on record announcing his intention to vote for Ronald Reagan but claimed this did not amount to an endorsement.
He also downplayed his influence. He went on "Meet the Press" and denied that Moral Majority had enough power to provide decisive support for conservative candidates like Reagan. "If Moral Majority got so strong it could elect a president or a Congress I would disband it," he vowed on another occasion. But later on he called Reagan's 1980 election "my finest hour." By 1981, President Reagan was seeking the preacher's opinion about his plan to nominate Sandra Day O'Connor to the Supreme Court. (Falwell had publicly expressed concerns about the Justice's record on feminism and abortion).
In 1984 Moral Majority spent three times more money than in the previous presidential election. Working in nearly every state, it set up voter registration tables at houses of worship and sponsored training seminars on "get out the vote" and other political techniques for pastors. (Such operations are legal if done in a nonpartisan manner).
In 1987, the Jim and Tammy Bakker financial and sex scandals touched off a series of IRS audits of other TV ministries, such as Falwell's Liberty University and "The Old Time Gospel Hour," and of operations led by evangelists Oral Roberts and Pat Robertson. The Moral Majority was officially disbanded in 1989 following years of declining membership and sliding financial support. Falwell shuttered his national television network, the deed to his Thomas Road Baptist Church was seized by the government and Liberty University fell $73 million in debt, according to the Associated Press.
Critics predicted the demise of Falwell's influence following his post-September 11 comments blaming the ACLU, "abortionists," pagans, gays and lesbians and calling Prophet Muhammad "a terrorist" (all of which he apologized for). Evidently, monitoring groups continue to maintain an interest in his activities, and will be watching for the outcome of this new legal challenge to Jerry Falwell Ministries.
"We vehemently oppose any violation of the separation of church and state," Falwell told the press in 1980. Visitors to the website of his Thomas Road Baptist Church receive a different message altogether: "The phrase 'separation of church and state' does not appear anywhere in the Constitution...If anything, Congress should stay out of the way, as should the courts, for they are specifically instructed to do so...the time has come to put the record straight."
Julia Scott is a San Francisco-based freelance writer and associate editor at NewsDesk.org.