By Angelica Aho
The vast gray area that separates church and state has never been clearly defined. This election year, members of religious communities find themselves pulled in different directions as campaigns and candidates dip their toes in uncharted waters.
A recent memo circulated by the Bush-Cheney campaign angered religious groups and received backlash from national non-denominational groups. The memo, distributed to campaign staff, outlines duties of religious volunteers, including holding citizenship and voter registration drives, identifying other local, conservative churches willing to organize for Bush and providing a copy of the church directory to a Bush representative.
“As the pastor of a local congregation, if I found out that my church membership directory was shared with a campaign or political party, I would begin immediate legal action against the campaign or political party,” said the Rev. Welton Gaddy, president of The Interfaith Alliance. “This is totally inappropriate.”
The Interfaith Alliance is a Washington, D.C.-based foundation that represents diverse religious traditions and encourages the involvement of people of faith in the nation”s political life. They have distributed several pamphlets addressing the 2004 election, including the issue of church involvement in partisan politics.
“A house of worship cannot coordinate its voter registration, ”Get-Out-The-Vote” drive [a program encouraging voter registration], or other election-related activities with a candidate or political party,” warns the “One Nation, Many Faiths,” a The Interfaith Alliance publication. “Don”t let candidates or political parties suggest the timing, message, audience or location for these activities.”
This warning is not to please politicians or supporters of the separation of church and state. Churches are advised against involvement in partisan politics for their own protection.
“I”m frankly concerned that an administration that has talked so eloquently about the importance of houses of worship would be willing to intrude on the sanctity of houses of worship and compromise them in some ways by seeking to turn them into political organizations,” Gaddy said. “We are alarmed that this initiative by the Bush-Cheney campaign could lure religious organizations and religious leaders into dangerous territory where they risk losing their tax-exempt status and could be violating the law.”
One privilege of a nonprofit organization is the freedom from paying taxes. This privilege is jeopardized if that group directly or indirectly becomes involved in any political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office, as stated in the Internal Revenue Service code 501(c)(3).
However, this does not mean religious organizations cannot become involved in politics and civic duty.
“A nonprofit group can organize on a political issue, such as the marriage amendment,” said BYU law professor John Welch. “What it cannot do is get involved in the election of public officials.”
The danger is that these two practices are so often linked that the line separating the two can easily become blurred.
“My view from the pulpit is that churches should not be involved in party politics,” said Leonard Evans, interim rector for the St. Mary”s Episcopal Church in Provo. “But I think that sometimes issues impinge on the way parties or candidates are perceived. It”s incumbent upon all civic institutions to encourage people to get out and vote.”
This is precisely the reason the National Association of Evangelicals, another Washington-based multi-faith organization, drafted the document “For the Health of the Nation: A Call to Civic Engagement.” This publication is designed to promote civic involvement, voting and political awareness by appealing to a Christian sense of faith and duty.
“We have a long history of distinguished political engagement that has, through people like William Wilberforce, Charles Finney and Lord Shaftsbury, deeply shaped history; promoting freedom and justice around the world,” said the Rev. Richard Cizik, Vice President for Governmental Affairs, and project director. “It”s time for our community to draw on this glorious heritage and write another important chapter.”
This document is a powerful call to duty of all Christians, regardless of denomination.
“Evangelical Christians in America face a historic opportunity,” reads the preamble. “We make up fully one quarter of all voters in the most powerful nation in history. Never before has God given American evangelicals such an awesome opportunity to shape public policy in ways that could improve the well being of the entire world. Disengagement is not an option.”
The Interfaith Alliance also encourages providing nonpartisan information to worshipers and encouraging them to vote.
The position of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints agrees with both organizations. The church policy manual states the church”s position of political neutrality, while church leaders continuously encourage the civic engagement of its members.
“It is not enough just to vote,” said Robert Freeman, associate professor of Church History and Doctrine at BYU. “We must attend meetings and be involved in our communities.”
Freeman said at BYU, regardless of our field of study, we all major in truth. We must realize the moral implications of what we learn and use that knowledge to shape our communities.