Leftist groups target pastors in the fall elections

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Commentary by Gary Palmer

An overwhelming majority of America’s Protestant pastors believe that the state has erected a “wall of separation” that is much too high between the things of government and the things of God, according to a survey commissioned by the Southern Baptist Convention.

The recently released survey revealed that most Protestant clergy in the United States believe that the separation of church and state has gone too far.

According to the survey, this view was held by 78% of the senior pastors among all Protestant denominations and by 92% of Southern Baptist, 91% of Pentecostal, 70% of Methodist and 64% of Lutheran pastors.

Surprisingly, 58% of senior pastors from liberal mainline churches think so too.

The survey revealed high levels of support among all Protestant pastors in regard to specific issues such as allowing nativity scenes on government property (79%), keeping “In God We Trust” on currency (96%), displaying the Ten Commandments in courthouses (86%), and leaving “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance (95%).

Even among pastors of liberal mainline churches, 66% supported displaying the Ten Commandments in courthouses.

It is not surprising that such a huge majority of the Protestant clergy in our country expresses alarm over the secular encroachment on religious expressions in the public sphere. Indeed, there is growing concern among many pastors that even the freedom to preach on moral issues such as abortion or homosexuality may one day be denied in our country. Though it was not addressed in this survey, another survey of pastors done two years ago by Ellison Research did reflect pastors’ concerns about the loss of religious freedom in the United States. Baptists (59%) and Pentecostals (60%) were most likely to believe that overall religious freedom will decline over the next 10 years in the United States.

These fears are credible for a number of reasons, and in fact were given more weight when several U.S. Supreme Court justices publicly stated earlier this year that they think the laws and constitutions of foreign countries should be applied to U.S.cases. Already, pastors have been charged with hate speech crimes in Canada and Sweden because they dared preach against homosexuality and homosexual marriage.

In addition, a hate crimes bill that some believe would apply to speech recently passed the U.S. Senate.

Even more troubling for pastors are the activities of groups such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State and a new group called the Mainstream Coalition that are blatantly engaging in a campaign of intimidation directed at conservative pastors.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State has already filed complaints with the IRS against First Baptist Church of Springdale, Ark., because of a July 4th sermon on the moral issues confronting Christians in this election.

Americans United have accused Pastor Ronnie Floyd of making a not-so-subtle endorsement of the re-election of President Bush because he described the positions of Bush and Democratic nominee John Kerry on such issues as abortion and homosexual marriage.

But what is really happening in this case is a not-so-subtle attempt to silence religious conservatives.

The Mainstream Coalition, a group that supports abortion, cloning, hate crimes legislation and homosexual marriage, is also engaging in a campaign of intimidation by recruiting volunteers to “monitor” what goes on in evangelical churches in Kansas and Missouri. The group says that it just wants to make sure clergy adhere to federal tax guidelines that restrict political activity by nonprofit groups; what they are really doing is sending spies and informants to churches that are opposed to the legal recognition of homosexual marriage.

Leftist groups like the Mainstream Coalition are out in force because they are worried that religious conservatives have been energized into action by recent court decisions and by the debate over the legalization of homosexual marriage. One of the left’s main concerns is that churches and pro-family groups have initiated an unprecedented effort to register evangelical Christians to vote in the 2004 elections.

It is estimated that there are at least 60 million evangelicals of voting age in the U.S., that only about 35 million are registered to vote, and of those registered, only about 16 to 18 million voted in the 2002 election.

Given that polls indicate that upward to 70% of evangelicals will vote for President Bush, Americans United and their leftist allies view any effort on the part of evangelical churches to encourage voter registration or voter turnout as a de facto endorsement of President Bush.

The good news for pastors is that it is perfectly legal for their churches to conduct voter registration drives, to provide non-partisan voter guides, and to even provide transportation to the polls on Election Day.

It is also permissible for them to preach openly about moral issues and to even present the candidates’ positions on those issues as long as they do not endorse any candidate in a public forum.

Of course, as a private citizen, a pastor can endorse any candidate he chooses.

Americans United and the Mainstream Coalition may claim they are acting in good faith to ensure that churches do not engage in illegal political activity.

But what they are really doing is engaging in Orwellian tactics to intimidate pastors into silence.

Pastors can get information on the legal “dos and don’ts” in regard to what activities the IRS allows by contacting the Alliance Defense Fund at 1-800-TELL-ADF or by visiting their Web site at www.alliancedefensefund.org.

Gary Palmer is president of the Alabama Policy Institute, a non-partisan, non-profit research and education organization dedicated to the preservation of free markets, limited government and strong families, which are indispensable to a prosperous society.