Sunday, July 21, 2002
By: Candi Cushman - Focus on the Family
Vision America Calls Pastors to Civic Action
Little did David Nelson know that his preconceived ideas about politics and the pulpit were about to change forever. As a youth minister of Smith Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in Tatum, Texas, and a “born Democrat,” he rarely mixed with conservative activist pastors. Now they were sitting all around him, and he wasn’t happy.
At first, “I didn’t see men,” he told Citizen. “I saw a class of people.”
A friend had invited Nelson to the pastors’ meeting, and that’s the only reason he came. He expected to hear a pitch for money or enrollment in the Republican Party. But he was pleasantly surprised when the 375 pastors in attendance instead focused on the Word of God.
“I was so blown away,” recalled Nelson. “It was more about getting fired up for God [than politics] and the people God is putting in positions to do His will.”
Hosted by a nonprofit, grassroots group called Vision America, the event challenged ministers like Nelson to teach what the Bible says about cultural issues and then motivate their flocks to apply biblical principles when they vote.
“We can pray all we want for the moral slide to cease and for ungodly laws to cease being passed,” said Vision America founder Rick Scarborough, who pastors the First Baptist Church in Pearland, Texas. “But the fact is men pass laws, and the only ones who will ever vote a righteous man in office are righteous people.”
With more than $800,000 provided by an anonymous donor, Vision America launched a pilot get-out-the-Christian-vote project in Texas this year, canvassing 20,000 churches with fliers encouraging parishioners to vote and hosting more than 1,000 pastors at seminars across the state. Scarborough hopes those efforts will inspire “patriot pastors” to teach their congregations about the importance of civic duty.
“We are rallying pastors all over the state,” Scarborough said. “Wherever we find issues being discussed that are clearly identifiable as biblical, we are going into those areas and encouraging the church [members] to first of all register voters and second to vote.”
Nelson was one of those inspired to action. After attending the Vision America meeting, he convinced his senior pastor — who owns a gospel radio station reaching some 600,000 listeners — to create radio spots encouraging Christians to become informed voters. For the first time, Nelson’s church also held a voter registration drive and distributed voter guides.
“God has given us an opportunity to have a voice within the government instead of sitting back and complaining,” Nelson said. “Faith without works is dead, so we are putting the people to work.”
Internal data from the Republican National Committee shows that an estimated 40 percent of Christians — that’s about 24 million people — are not registered to vote. Considering that just over 100,000 votes enabled four pro-choice candidates for the U.S. Senate to defeat pro-life candidates, church voter registration is a key force in changing our nation’s future.
So Vision America is just one of many Christian groups, including Focus on the Family, trying to counteract left-wing efforts to scare church leaders away from get-out-the-vote efforts.
During the 2000 election, for instance, Americans United for Separation of Church and State mailed letters to 90 percent of the nation’s clergy — at roughly 285,000 churches — claiming that distribution of pro-family voter guides could result in the loss of tax-exempt status.
Americans United launched another scare campaign last October, warning thousands of Virginia pastors to be “wary of distributing campaign ‘voter guides’ from Religious Right groups,” including the Family Research Council and the Christian Coalition. (With the help of some 60,000 churches, the Christian Coalition distributed 70 million voter guides in 2000.)
“Groups that approach you about distributing political materials may be putting your church in a legally vulnerable position,” the letter said. “Your church could lose its tax exemption or be otherwise fined or sanctioned for doing so.”
But the truth is, not one church has ever lost its tax-exempt status for encouraging voter registration or distributing pro-family voter guides, said Mat Staver of the Florida-based Liberty Counsel. “There is more of a chance of somebody being struck by lightning in Florida than for a church to lose its tax-exempt status for engaging in political or lobbying issues,” he said.
As proof of danger, Americans United often cites a 1995 case in which the IRS punished The Church at Pierce Creek in Binghamton, N.Y., for publishing a newspaper ad opposing President Clinton — the first government action of its kind in U.S. history.
But that one-of-a-kind case has no bearing on nonpartisan activities like voter registration drives or voter guide distribution, said Staver. As long as churches do not overtly oppose or endorse candidates, “there is nothing for them to fear in terms of engaging in political or legislative issues.”
Furthermore, the only reason the IRS played Big Brother in the first place was because Americans United filed a complaint against the church.
That’s why churches must stand their ground against attempts to make the IRS “the thought and speech police in America,” said Colby May, senior counsel for the Virginia-based American Center for Law and Justice (founded by Jay Sekulow).
“They use this as a club to chill churches from doing anything. . . . Because if you can just create the shadow that there is a problem most pastors, priests and rabbis . . . are just going to say, ‘No thanks.’
“The best way to counteract that chill effect is if churches will follow the two cardinal rules: Just do nonpartisan activity and never endorse.”
At least one pastor who received the Americans United letter refused to cower. “I know what they’re telling me is not true, because I know what the law is,” Pastor Bill Cashman at York River Baptist Church in Williamsburg, Va., told Citizen. “As long as we don’t advocate or speak against a candidate, then presenting these things in a nonpartisan way is totally legal.”
So confident is he that Pastor Cashman hangs super-sized copies of Christian Coalition voter guides on his church walls and distributes smaller copies in Sunday morning bulletins.
“I can’t endorse a candidate, and I wouldn’t if I could,” he said. “But we make sure the issues that affect the health of our families get addressed before our people.”
Cashman uses voting resources provided by The Family Foundation, a Virginia-based group that, like Vision America, assists church leaders in mobilizing Christian voters. In addition to providing nonpartisan voter guides, the foundation helps churches create parishioner-led “community impact” task forces that coordinate voter-education activities.
With the help of The Family Foundation, for instance, church members at Kempsville Presbyterian Church in Virginia Beach, Va., created the Faith, Freedom and Citizenship class, which studies what the Bible says about current issues and takes occasional trips to the state Capitol.
“We took a busload of people for riverboat gambling [legislation],” said Marjorie Powers, the 77-year-old grandmother who supervises the class with her husband.
“In the end, it was not voted on. But it would have been had we not been there.” Powers’ church also designates parishioner liaisons to discuss moral issues with state representatives and intercessors who pray for the liaisons and representatives.
“The Scripture teaches us to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. Well, in America we are Caesar, we are the government, and we need to be involved in the process,” said Phil Whitaker, a former pastor who serves full time at The Family Foundation. “If people of faith stay out of the process, that only leaves unbelievers to influence. And that’s not the way to promote righteousness in our land.
“When I preached to my church about abortion, I was not preaching a political agenda,” he said. “I was preaching a biblical principle. We should not allow the other side to politicize spiritual principles.”
Back in Tatum, Texas, Nelson agreed and said fervor for God has outweighed fear of man at his church:
“I don’t see intimidation working here. If you follow God, you have nothing to fear. So we are just going to stand fast on what He says and what He has for our lives.”