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The Religion of Politics

The election season is upon us. The red, white and blue streamers are out. The “vote for” whomever signs are up. There are songs of partisan loyalty in the air. The news networks are firing up their huge electronic map which will soon demonstrate with red states and blue states that we are as divided as we ever have been. A history professor I know predicts that the 2004 campaign will be the most bitter and most divisive in over 200 years.

Fortunately, the effect of the campaign may not be all bad. Among the faithful is a stirring the likes of which we have never seen. It would appear that the political season may actually result in an increase in church attendance. Let me explain.

In Kansas a group known as the “Mainstream Coalition” is outraged by churches who openly endorse candidates for office. According to published IRS guidelines, organizations granted tax-free status under federal law “may not participate at all in campaign activity for or against political candidates.”

In an effort to force these churches to comply with the law the Mainstream Coalition is enlisting volunteers who will regularly attend conservative churches during the campaign. These undercover visitors will witness and record instances of church services being used for politicking.

The news of monitoring church services has stirred some concern in the local faith community. According to a news story in the Kansas City Star, a group of pastors reacted strongly to the Mainstream Coalition’s plan to monitor church services for potentially improper political activity.

“We are alarmed at such scare tactics,” the group, called Ad Hoc Pastors for Biblical Values, said in a written statement. “These are the methods of coercive rulers. There is no place for this type of intimidation by ‘secret police’ in our land.”

The Mainstream Coalition responded with a warning that churches need to keep partisan politics away from the pulpit. A spokesperson for the group said, “If they’re not doing anything wrong, they shouldn’t be worried about anything. Our goal is not to intimidate anyone. Our goal, which I think we’ve achieved to some degree, is to raise public awareness about this issue.”

Meanwhile, in Fredericksburg, Va., a conservative group calling themselves the “Big Brother Church Watch,” is sending volunteers throughout Virginia to sit in liberal church pews and take notes. This group wants to make sure everyone is playing by the same rules. If conservative churches are at risk of losing their tax-exempt status by engaging in partisan politics, then liberal churches should be equally at risk if they endorse candidates.

Peggy Birchfield, spokeswoman for the Brothers said, “You tend to hear more about the conservatives, but no one is checking the liberal churches.” In particular the Brothers are keeping an eye on Metropolitan Community churches, Unitarian Universalist fellowships and African Methodist Episcopal churches.

It’s hard to estimate at this point just how much these clandestine worshipers will add to church attendance during the campaign season. Reports from both groups seem to indicate that the monitors will be going out two by two. But from small seeds come mighty weeds. Monitoring pairs could easily become monitoring teams. We could witness the rise of monitoring communities. What begins as a tiny mission effort of a faithful few could eventually become a mass movement—they may even establish their own college.

Liturgies will most surely be altered: Monitor your neighbor as you would have your neighbor monitor you. And if things really go well, church monitoring may eventually replace football as America’s most brutal religious activity. World without end.

James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.