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."
In light of the popularity of recent books with names like "Big Lies: The Right-Wing Propaganda Machine and How It Distorts the Truth" by Joe Conason, "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them" by Al Franken, and AlterNet's own book, "The Five Biggest Lies Bush Told Us About Iraq," there can be no mistaking the political climate that spurred the creation of the Tell Us the Truth Tour, now in its penultimate week on the East Coast.
Headliner Billy Bragg is joined by fellow musicians Boots Riley of The Coup, Mike Mills of REM, Audioslave's Tom Morello, country guitarist Steve Earle, blues rocker Lester Chambers, and others in a spirited effort to entertain as well as encourage audiences to demand government accountability around two specific issues: media consolidation and free trade.
The two topics were not chosen at random. The tour kicked off at the National Conference for Media Reform in Wisconsin in early November, where presenters shared strategies on creating a progressive alternative to the corporate media monopoly. The June 2 decision by the Federal Communications Commission to remove many of the obstacles to more concentrated, less regulated media ownership permits one media company to own a newspaper, three television stations and several radio stations in the same market.
The performers have since traveled from the Midwest to the Southeast, bringing their eclectic sound to cities such as Chicago, Indianapolis, Nashville and Atlanta. This week, they will disembark at the People's Gala for Global Justice in Miami, entertaining the thousands of protesters who will converge on a gathering of top officials working toward the creation of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), an expansion of NAFTA to include the entire Western Hemisphere.
Protestors fear that such an expansion will adversely affect workersâ€š wages and rights, harm the environment, and establish an exploitative trade model that benefits only the corporations who will have free reign to dictate the bottom line. "What we see here is Big Media getting a free pass to get bigger by government and our government getting a free pass to do whatever, whether that means changing the media rules or changing the trade policies," asserts indie rocker Jenny Toomey, executive director of the Future of Music Coalition, a musician advocacy group and a sponsor of the tour.
The Future of Music Coalition published a report in 2002 measuring changes in the structure of the radio industry since 1996, when the Telecommunications Act opened the floodgates to nationwide station ownership by a single entity. The findings: less music and news programming diversity, and musicians struggling more than ever to get airplay. "Until we understand why radio sucks so much since the Telecommunications Act, we shouldn't be fooling around with other media that are directly connected to our democratic process," says Toomey.
"As artists and musicians we understand how the formal and informal censorship of our voice has impacted the diversity of our culture and the climate within which we make our art," declares a statement on the Tell Us the Truth Tour's website. "We will not remain silent in the face of the ghettoizing of our communities and the banning of our peers."
To get the message across, the tour's artists meet with media and fair trade activists prior to almost every performance, creating a rare publicity opportunity. Unfortunately, the media's coverage of the tour has been fairly sparse, with a tendency to focus more on the media consolidation issue than the questions activists have raised about the FTAA.
The mystery surrounding the two subjects is typical, says Toomey. "The sense that I get from people when I talk to them about these issues is confusion and fear," she affirms.
The presence of sponsoring organizations Common Cause, Axis of Justice, the AFL-CIO, and local groups at every venue go a long way toward dissolving that confusion, and the tour's homepage includes a description of both issues and resources for action.
A joyful sound doesn't hurt the message either. Nowhere is this more apparent than in a special group jam to the Chambers Brothers 1968 funk hit, "Time Has Come Today," with Lester Chambers leading the company and Boots Riley rapping over. In Wisconsin, FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein wowed the crowd with an impromptu performance on the harmonica (he'll be back for the tour's final stop in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 24.)
"Oh my lord, he's bad," laughs Chambers, who knew of Adelstein's talent. "I'm thinking about inviting him to record with me."
The concert never fails to inspire, with a standing ovation every night. "It's a healthy show," says Chambers. "You see people leaving the venue, even silver-haired ones, going down the streets and hollering up the neighborhood."