Voter guides and IRS basics

elect jesusThe crescendo leading up to this November's election is starting to seem like that of a presidential election year. From a purely political standpoint, it's about as fun a midterm election season as I've ever witnessed. Scandals are abounding. Bob Woodward has a new book out. And politicians are scrambling to snatch those 30 million or so regular churchgoers who did not vote in 2004. This leads to stories about voter guides and everyone's favorite government agency, the Internal Revenue Service. Stephanie Simon of the Los Angeles Times brought her impressive reporting skills to the story and reached a not-so-startling conclusion:

Their efforts at times push legal limits on church involvement in partisan campaigns. That is by design. With control of Congress at stake Nov. 7, those guiding the movement say they owe it to God and to their own moral principles to do everything they can to keep social conservatives in power.

Preachers "ought to put their toe right on the line," said Mathew D. Staver, founder of Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit law firm that supports conservative Christian causes.

Simon thoroughly documents how activists are pushing those legal limits. (Christianity Today's Ted Olsen pointed out on an earlier thread that Focus on the Family founder James Dobson is encouraging his followers to vote Republican.) Simon finds the Rev. Rick Scarborough, of that big place known as Texas, saying that "We urge [pastors] to avoid legal entanglement, but there are times in a pastor's life when he needs to take a biblical stand. ... Our higher calling is to Christ."

Previous articles made little of the actual result of an IRS church investigation. But with anything regulatory, the government must engage in a lot of education. Simon makes that point clear in her article in a way I had not seen lately. She also follows my favorite maxim -- show, don't tell -- regarding those tricky voter guides:

The voter pamphlets are supposed to be neutral, but often present issues through a distinctly partisan lens. A guide distributed by a conservative group in Minnesota in 2004 laid out the candidates' views on aborting "unborn babies." One produced this year by the liberal evangelical group Sojourners describes immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops as the only way to bring peace to Iraq.

Contrast that with a report from Alan Cooperman of The Washington Post on the supposedly big announcement (it was an A6 story on Friday, a heavy news day if I recall correctly) that the group Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good would "distribute at least 1 million voter guides before the Nov. 7 elections, emphasizing church teachings on war, poverty and social justice as well as on abortion, contraception and homosexuality." Cooperman tells us all about the issues (and provides handy links here and here to the actual voter guides), but fails to lay out the positions. Simon did this and showed how blatantly partisan these guides are from both sides of the aisle.

Now I am just as aware as anyone else that a good news story needs a good news hook, so Cooperman was certainly justified using the release of the Common Good guides, but compare it to Simon's thorough 1,500-word survey of the highly relevant issue. Are Post editors preventing Cooperman from having the space and play he needs to do something similar? (By the way, Simon mentions Cooperman's story in one paragraph near the end of her article.)

clintonBasic ground-laying content, giving the article depth and balance, is missing from Cooperman's story. Check out Simon's short summary of the matter:

The law restricting political activity of churches and charities dates to 1954, when then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson pushed it through in a pique of anger over a nonprofit's effort to derail his reelection. Tax-exempt organizations, including churches, may not participate or intervene in political campaigns on behalf of any candidate. Intervention is broadly defined as "any and all activities that favor or oppose one or more candidate for public office," according to the Internal Revenue Service.

That sounds straightforward. In practice, though, there are many ways around the restriction, as the faithful recognize.

"If the pastor is doing the right job, the people will automatically vote for the right person," said Gale Wollenberg, who belongs to a conservative evangelical church in Topeka, Kan.

So before you "rat out a church" for being too political, read Simon's article and remember the decades-old roots of voter guides.

Please respect our Commenting Policy