Former President Bill Clinton's politically laden message Aug. 29 at a New York church "misused the pulpit to advance a personal agenda," says a church-state watchdog group that recently blew the whistle on conservative churches for treading on IRS regulations preventing tax-exempt charities from endorsing political candidates, but it did not necessarily break the law.
"Are politicians and their clergy allies hell-bent on dragging religious institutions into partisan politics?" Joe Conn, a spokesman for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said in a Tuesday weblog. "They sure seem to be."
Conn criticized both Clinton's "sermon-cum-political speech" at Riverside Church in New York City, where he criticized Republicans but stopped short of endorsing Democratic nominee John Kerry, and an appearance by Jerry Falwell at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.
Americans United recently asked the IRS to investigate Falwell for endorsing President Bush in a ministry newsletter, which AU head Barry Lynn said violated tax law.
Noting the presence of reporters at his Aug. 24 message in the seminary chapel, Falwell reportedly said, "The press is here today, expecting me to get into politics, which I'm not going to do--except to tell you to vote for the Bush of your choice."
Seminary President Paige Patterson also announced a voter-registration effort aimed at ministerial students, with registration tables to be placed outside the chapel for the following week.
"Federal tax law forbids churches and other tax-exempt groups to intervene in elections on behalf of candidates," Conn said. "The IRS, however, does not generally regard candidate appearances in church to be evidence of a violation, if other candidates are given the same opportunity."
Conn said it would be "interesting to see" if either the seminary or Riverside Church provides the balance required by the tax code.
"At a minimum though, Clinton, Falwell and their accomplices have misused the pulpit to advance personal agendas," he continued. "Both men could have uttered the same words in a nonreligious venue, and no one could have raised legal or ethical questions. A little repentance is clearly in order."
Some accuse Americans United, which in addition to Falwell also recently complained to the IRS about Pastor Ronnie Floyd's July 4 pro-Bush sermon at First Baptist Church in Springdale, Ark., of singling out conservatives while overlooking partisan activity by liberal, and especially African-American, clergy.
Newsday columnist James Pinkerton commented Tuesday on a lack of backlash to Clinton's remarks "from secular-minded liberals, who pride themselves on sounding the alarm whenever religion poaches onto politics."
"Why the quiet?" he asked. "Maybe because the president in question was not President George W. Bush, but rather ex-president Bill Clinton."
Floyd said in an e-mail to EthicsDaily.com that Clinton's comments went much further than his own, but "there are two sets of rules" for conservatives and liberals. He said he doubted AU would do anything about Clinton's speech at Riverside Church, because it "furthers their liberal agenda."
AU denies that political bias plays a factor in its monitoring of church politicking..
On Tuesday, AU said a Miami church that hosted a Democratic rally Aug. 29 should also be investigated by the IRS. The rally at New Birth Baptist Church, featuring former presidential candidate Al Sharpton and Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe, appeared to "have gone beyond legitimate voter education about the issues" into a partisan event that featured only Democrats, according to AU's Barry Lynn.
"Americans do not want to see houses of worship turned into partisan political conventions," Lynn said in a press release.
James Forbes, pastor of Riverside Church, said at a forum in March that he would be tacitly endorsing Kerry from the pulpit. "When I stand up in front of my congregation and tell them what principles I think our faith would cause us to concentrate on, they pretty much get the impression. I don't have to call anybody's name," Forbes said, quoted in Cox News Service.
Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission claims he doesn't endorse candidates, but he is running a national campaign to register Southern Baptists, who Land says voted for Bush over former Vice President Al Gore by a 4-1 margin in the 2000 election.
Robert Parham of the Baptist Center for Ethics warned churches of all stripes against wedding their faith to partisan politics.
"From code words to deceptive voter guides, too many politicians and preachers are politicizing pulpits with the absolutist claims that God favors one party over the other and that God depends on politics to usher in the moral age," Parham said. "The misuse of the pulpit poisons honest debate, polarizes civil society and points the faithful toward the idolatrous trust in the fallen ideologies."
"The Republican and Democratic Parties are neither thoroughly moral nor completely immoral. Both are flawed," Parham said. "What is urgently needed today is a prophetic critique which judges both parties, calling them to the higher standards of establishing justice in a sinful world."
In his Sunday message at Riverside, Clinton criticized Southern Baptists' iVoteValues.com registration effort, saying it is concerned only with values of abortion, homosexuality and centralization of wealth, while ignoring other values like concern for the poor.
While the right claims "the exclusive allegiance of America's real Christians," Clinton reminded hearers that the Bible says that all followers of Christ "see through a glass darkly."
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.