By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 29, 2008
CROWN POINT, Ind., Sept. 28 -- Defying a federal law that prohibits U.S. clergy from endorsing political candidates from the pulpit, an evangelical Christian minister told his congregation Sunday that voting for Sen. Barack Obama would be evidence of "severe moral schizophrenia."
The Rev. Ron Johnson Jr. told worshipers that the Democratic presidential nominee's positions on abortion and gay partnerships exist "in direct opposition to God's truth as He has revealed it in the Scriptures." Johnson showed slides contrasting the candidates' views but stopped short of endorsing Obama's Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain.
Johnson and 32 other pastors across the country set out Sunday to break the rules, hoping to generate a legal battle that will prompt federal courts to throw out a 54-year-old ban on political endorsements by tax-exempt houses of worship.
The ministers contend they have a constitutional right to advise their worshipers how to vote. As Johnson put it during a break between sermons, "The point that the IRS says you can't do it, I'm saying you're wrong."
The campaign, organized by the Alliance Defense Fund, a socially conservative legal consortium based in Arizona, has gotten the attention of the Internal Revenue Service. The agency, alerted by opponents, pledged to "monitor the situation and take action as appropriate."
Each campaign season brings allegations that a member of the clergy has crossed a line set out in a 1954 amendment to the tax code that says nonprofit, tax-exempt entities may not "participate in, or intervene in . . . any political campaign on behalf of any candidate for public office."
This time, the church action is concerted. Yet while the ministers say the rules stifle religious expression, their opponents contend that the tax laws are essential to protect the separation of church and state. They say political speech should not be supported by a tax break for the churches or the worshipers who are contributing to a political cause.
In an open letter Saturday, a United Church of Christ minister, the Rev. Eric Williams, warned that many members of the clergy are "exchanging their historic religious authority for a fleeting promise of political power," to the detriment of their churches.
"The role of the church -- of congregation, synagogue, temple and mosque -- and of its religious leaders is to stand apart from government, to prophetically speak truth to power," Williams wrote, "and to encourage a national dialogue that transcends the divisiveness of electoral politics and preserves for every citizen our 'first liberty.' "
In the modern red-brick Living Stones Church in Crown Point, a town of 28,000 residents 50 miles southeast of Chicago, Johnson explained why he thinks a minister should dispense political advice. He then laid out his view of the positions of Obama and McCain on abortion and same-sex marriage, which he called two issues "that transcend all others."
"We want people when you prick them, they bleed the word of God," Johnson said.
Johnson said ministers have a responsibility to guide their flocks in worldly matters, including politics, calling the dichotomy between the secular and the sacred a myth: "The issue is not 'Are we legislating morality?' This issue is 'Whose morality are we legislating?' "
Asked why he felt the need to discuss the candidates by name and to be explicit in rejecting Obama and his pro-choice views, Johnson said he must connect the dots because he is not sure that all members of his congregation can do so on their own.
The congregation greeted Johnson's reasoning and his criticism of Obama with applause.
"When things of the world don't line up with Scripture," said Ed Kraus, 61, who executes reverse mortgages for a living, "he has a right to say they don't."
Ruth Stiener went a step further. "He has a duty," she said. "Heaven forbid that that is ever taken away from our pastors."
Robert Tuttle, law professor at George Washington University, is skeptical that the Alliance Defense Fund project will result in a new judicial interpretation of the 1954 law. "The only way this gets into a court is if the IRS, number one, decides to enforce and the enforcement mechanism they choose actually causes an injury to a church," said Tuttle, who studies the intersection of law and religion. "That's not something that happens often in campaign activity."
More than 180 members of the clergy have signed a pledge from the Interfaith Alliance, a Washington-based group that seeks to separate faith and politics, agreeing not to endorse a candidate on behalf of their house of worship.
"I have no objections to clergy taking off their robes and walking out the door of their church, synagogue or mosque and immersing themselves in political campaigns," said Rabbi Jack Moline of Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria, chairman of the Interfaith Alliance board. "But a sanctuary should not be a place of political agitation on behalf of a candidate. On behalf of issues, yes. Of candidates, no."
Moline added: "Endorsing a candidate from the pulpit is saying, 'This is what our God says should be the government of the country.' I think that is a nightmare scenario for a country that introduced the Bill of Rights to humanity."
As for Johnson's criticism of Obama, the Illinois Democrat supports the right to choose abortion. He opposes same-sex marriage but supports civil unions for gay couples.
"Senator Obama is a committed Christian and a man of deep faith," said Joshua DuBois, Obama's national religious affairs director. "And the notion that there is only one way to address issues like abortion, or that people of faith cannot support full civil rights for all Americans, is absurd."
Staff writer Jacqueline L. Salmon in Washington contributed to this report.