Christian right's illegal ploy: Why they're electioneering from the pulpit -- and getting away with it

Conservatives worry about election integrity -- except when "sacred" churches endorsing candidates come into play

By Heather Digby Parton
Published November 4, 2014 6:14PM (EST)
Scott Brown, Mitch McConnell, Thom Tillis                                  (AP/Jim Cole/Manuel Balce Ceneta/Photo montage by Salon)
Scott Brown, Mitch McConnell, Thom Tillis (AP/Jim Cole/Manuel Balce Ceneta/Photo montage by Salon)

This election season has been yet another right-wing "voter fraud" pageant ranging from hysterical accusations of "ballot-box stuffing" (which turned out to be perfectly legal delivery of early votes to the registrar's office) to more silly high jinx from the James O'Keefe fraud squad, the hilariously named "Project Veritas" allegedly proving that elections are being stolen throughout the land by producing heavily edited videotapes of random people saying something that looks bad. But the blockbuster story of the cycle has to be the one that purported to prove that "illegals" are stealing our elections. This was based upon a study conducted by Old Dominion University political science professors Jesse Richman and David Earnest, in which they extrapolated from census figures and self-reported statistics on illegal immigration that 6.4 percent of the votes cast in 2008 (or 1.2 million people) were by undocumented immigrants and 2.2 percent in 2010.

The study's methodology was immediately called into question by other political scientists, and the authors themselves played down the significance of their findings. Nonetheless this story sent a wave of excitement through right-wing circles we haven't seen since the Tea Partyers donned tricorn hats and started storming town halls five years ago with the likes of declaring that this study gave credence to Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum's dire warnings about legal immigration destroying America by destroying the Republican Party:

The Eagle Forum report concluded that, though "Republican outreach to Asian and Latino voters" is "critical," Republicans "can never turn liberal-leaning immigrants and their adult children into supporters of limited government faster than the current high level of legal immigration (one million a year) is bringing in new liberal voters." The report found that new immigrants "and their adult children are significantly more liberal than the average American voter on a host of policy issues, including the size of government, Obamacare, affirmative action, gun control, greater environmental regulation, and other issues championed by the Left."

This is one case where they are admitting outright that they want to suppress the vote:

The report found that new immigrants "and their adult children are significantly more liberal than the average American voter on a host of policy issues, including the size of government, Obamacare, affirmative action, gun control, greater environmental regulation, and other issues championed by the Left... Thus, if future immigration is not reduced, it will be virtually impossible for Republicans to remain nationally competitive as a conservative party."

That's refreshingly honest. They know immigrants are hostile to their agenda so they want to stop immigration. Good to know.

But in the midst of all this caterwauling about illegal immigrants stealing elections and vote fraud and ballot box stuffing, guess who's simultaneously demanding that voting laws be broken so their people can vote against gay rights on Election Day? It would be unbelievable if it weren't so common for the right wing to do exactly what it accuses the other side of doing.

In August, opponents of Houston's recently enacted Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) reportedly submitted more than the seventeen thousand signatures needed to qualify put the measure on the November ballot. However, upon review of the petition under the City Charter, City Attorney David Feldman determined that thousands of the signatures failed to meet the legal requirements set by local and state law for a voter referendum...

On November 2, thousands of conservatives met in Houston at the "I Stand Sunday" rally to demand that the city government allow for a public vote on the ordinance, despite the failure of the repeal petition. The event, which was hosted by the anti-gay hate group Family Research Council (FRC), was widely promoted by Fox News and featured speeches from Fox's Todd Starnes and Mike Huckabee. At the rally, speakers demanded that the city of Houston "let the people vote" on the ordinance, accusing openly gay Mayor Annise Parker of violating the religious liberty of HERO's opponents by refusing to count their improperly collected signatures.

Yes, they are demanding that the city abandon their election laws because they do not favor them. (This is especially rich in light of the national crusade to call into question every last Democratic voter registration drive.) But if you were expecting Republicans to show any sort of shame or even slight chagrin at their obvious hypocrisy, think again. Their votes are always legitimate even if they are illegal because they are Real Americans.

But there's another example of Republicans flouting the election laws that's even more insidious because it comes from their most effective Get Out the Vote machine. According to Politico, the pastors of conservative Christian churches are boldly electioneering from the pulpit and are anxious to challenge the government to try to stop them:

A record number of rogue Christian pastors are endorsing candidates from the pulpit this election cycle, using Sunday sermons to defiantly flout tax rules.

Their message to the IRS: Sue me.

But the tax agency is doing anything but. Although the IRS was sued itself for not enforcing the law and admitted about 100 churches may be breaking the rules, the pastors and their critics alike say the agency is looking the other way. The agency refuses to say if it is acting.

At the same time, the number of pastors endorsing candidates in what they call Pulpit Freedom Sunday jumped from 33 people in 2008 to more than 1,600 this year, according to organizers, Alliance Defending Freedom. And this year, they’ve stepped up their drive, telling pastors to back candidates any Sunday up until the election, not just one Sunday as in past years.

The church leaders are jumping in high-profile races that will help decide the Senate and tight governor races across the country, endorsing candidates from Thom Tillis (R) over Sen. Kay Hagan (D) in North Carolina to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) over Alison Lundergan Grimes (D) in Kentucky.

This is against the law. And any church that does it ostensibly risks its tax-exempt status. But they know the IRS is unlikely to take on that fight. Churches are sacred, and not just in the strictly religious sense. Accusing a conservative church of breaking the law has always been a risky proposition but after the "religious liberty" crusade that brought us the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court decision and the relentless right-wing haranguing of the IRS for nonexistent persecution of Tea Party groups, it's fairly obvious that the refs have been well and truly played. Nobody's going to go after these outlaw pastors even if they start directly funding Republican candidates with the collection plate. Which they may very well do. Why not?  Who's going to stop them?

Still, it's a little bit startling to see people who allegedly care so deeply about "election integrity" show so little integrity when it comes to following the laws of the land themselves. Why, if one didn't know better, one might think they weren't entirely sincere about their patriotic devotion to American democracy and simply want to rig the system for their own advantage.

Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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