It may be that President Bush and his re-election campaign have finally found the limits of evangelical good will. The president's high-profile faith and open acknowledgement of Jesus as his favorite political philosopher has endeared him to evangelicals all across the country. His efforts to institute faith-based alternatives for social programs has also been warmly received among his evangelical following.
But now he may have gone too far. In an effort to energize and organize the evangelical community, campaign strategists have presented evangelical church leaders with a list of "22 duties." These duties are designed to help the faithful maximize their support and influence on behalf of the president.
Included on the list are some duties that most Christians are glad to do, and will probably do with or without any prompting. These items include praying for our country, praying for our leaders, praying for the troops serving around the world, and so forth. But there are other so-called duties on the list that go beyond the realm of acceptable ecclesiastical practice.
For one thing, campaign organizers for the president want church leaders to send them copies of their church rosters. The idea here is to compare the rosters to voter registration rolls to make sure as many church members as possible are registered. Given the past success of direct-mail campaigns we should not be surprised when those rolls also become mailing lists and used for direct solicitation of money as well as votes.
The list of 22 duties also includes strategies for churches reaching out to other churches. Congregations are encouraged to identify other conservative congregations in their area and help organize those congregations to support the president's re-election bid. The net effect of this strategy will essentially turn local congregations into party precinct houses.
Other "duties" include voter registration, which is perfectly acceptable work for a local church to do so long as the registration remains non-partisan. However the duty list for churches also calls on church leaders to distribute voter's guides among congregants. The courts have ruled consistently that voter guides which directly or indirectly endorse candidates are a violation of law and could leave congregations vulnerable to losing their status as tax exempt entities. Churches and other non-profits that enjoy tax-exempt status under section 501(c)(3) of the tax code are prohibited from engaging in partisan political activity.
Opposition to the president's plan to use churches in his campaign is already being heard from the usual corners. The Rev. Welton Gaddy, president of the D.C. based Interfaith Alliance, issued a statement which said of campaign organizers, "They are leading religious leaders into the temptation of forfeiting the prophetic voice of religion."
Barry Lynn, president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said in a statement that these campaign efforts were "a shameless attempt to misuse and abuse churches for partisan political purposes."
But concern is also coming from the heart of the president's base of support. Richard Land, who serves as president of the influential Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, said he was "appalled that the Bush-Cheney campaign would intrude on a local congregation in this way." He went on to comment, "The bottom line is, when a church does it, it's nonpartisan and appropriate. When a campaign does it, it's partisan and inappropriate. I suspect that this will rub a lot of pastors' fur the wrong way."
To which I would add, it's about time.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.