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Pushing the Church-State Envelope

I bought myself a black-powder rifle. It was mostly authentic, except that it needed a wooden stock to make it acceptable for historical reenactments I attend.

The intent of the hunting laws is that black-powder guns be replicas of old-time rifles used by early Americans. If one checks the Internet for such weapons, a series of options surfaces. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
Seeking to gain an edge, some hunters are tempted to purchase guns that skirt the law, or those that are just barely legal. The <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Texas game code forbids many of these “skirting” weapons as not legitimate.
 
Pushing the envelope is precisely what many Religious Right leaders are doing with election laws. They push the law to its limit, and some have even spilled their efforts over the line. The Arizona Christian Coalition encouraged Baptist churches to invite preferred candidates to give their “testimony” while ignoring their opponents. This stretching of the intent of the rule is growing more and more common.
 
Paul warned Timothy to tell the ladies not to be on the cutting edge of provocative fashion. Their example was to be above reproach with regard to modest dress. The same thing should be true in regard to the church and the law. It is not for some, however, when it comes to the issue of election laws.
 
A Baptist journalist commented on the bus trip Southern Baptist ethics leader Richard Land is taking to register voters. He noted Land had a tendency to walk right up to the edge of what is legal and stand there. This is a strange place for an ethical leader.
 
Some churches, like one in Austin, obviously crossed the line whenever the head of the state GOP took up an offering in church for Republican candidates.
 
The Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting was marked by a promotional video with a political subtext that the Austin American Statesman termed “unmistakable.”
 
Seminary President Paige Patterson called President Bush “King Solomon.”
 
Sugar Creek Baptist Church in the Houston area sent out a newsletter to every resident in the area praising the great work of Congressman Tom Delay, much to the chagrin of the Brazoria County Democrats.
 
Jerry Falwell dared the IRS to mess with him in the meeting I attended in Lufkin, Texas.
 
Falwell told us you don’t have to endorse by name, because the people can read. He told Jim Wallis of Sojourners that you can’t be an evangelical and not be for Bush. Jerry’s Web site has gotten him into recent trouble with the IRS over political endorsements.
 
Ronnie Floyd claimed to be skirting the law by his video and preaching performance in Arkansas. Critics said you would have to be from another planet to not see who he was backing for the vote. Church/state watchdogs said he violated the law.
 
Phil Strickland of the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission said Falwell placed the world’s largest seminary at risk of losing its tax-exempt status by his recent ravings there.
 
Vision America head Rick Scarborough goes even further than his mentor Falwell. He claims pastors should announce from the pulpit who they are voting for, only adding a disclaimer to politely say they are not speaking for the church. Go figure out the legal points on that one.
 
Rick has often used the church service, as has Falwell, to rally political activity. When a Texas fundamentalist’s Baptist leader tells readers to “vote biblical principles,” the choir is supposed to know who he is taking about.
 
These preachers claim such activity is justified in order to save the nation. Religious Right philosopher Francis Schaeffer is supposed to have stated that Christians must get involved in society to prevent culture from going to hell. Or as Scarborough likes to put it, “The salt has stayed in the shaker too long.”
 
Falwell encourages his fellow pastors not to be frightened of Americans United or the New York Times, whom he says are out to intimidate small-town preachers. Falwell is coming to the rescue, warning in his paper: “Some are facing leftist scaremongers who want to convince pastors that they have no legal right to speak out on political issues.”
 
When a church stretches the legal limits to the edge or pushes the envelope, however, it violates the intent of the law. In doing so, it is no different than hunters who skirt game laws with illegal rifles.
 
The tax laws were intended to prevent churches from engaging in secular politics through IRS guidelines governing tax-exempt organizations.
 
The purpose of these regulations, if not the letter, is being abused–and all in the name of Christian virtue.
 
Don Wilkey is pastor of First Baptist Church in Onalaska, Texas.