by David Sisler

"This is a completely baseless and legally threadbare attempt by a reckless federal agency to silence people of faith and deny them their First Amendment rights," said Mike Russell, communications director for the Christian Coalition, commenting on a lawsuit filed recently by the Federal Election Commission (FEC) against his organization.

Under the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, corporations are barred from spending for, or contributing any service to, any candidate or group involved in a federal election. The FEC charges that the Coalition violated the law by making illegal contributions -- specifically distributing voter information guides -- to the campaigns of former President George Bush, Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC), and to the 1994 senatorial campaign of Oliver North.

Responding to the suit, Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition maintains that the organization's information pamphlets are intended to inform voters where candidates stand on various issues, not to solicite votes for any candidate. Candidates are contacted and asked their opinions on specific issues and then the results are published only as information for the electorate, he maintains.

The ability of the Coalition and similar organizations to distribute nonpartisan voter education information has been upheld repeatedly by the federal courts. They are permitted by Section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code to engage in direct political activity. The U.S. District Court of Maine has ruled that if an organization does not solicit votes for a specific candidate, then it does not stand guilty of violating federal election laws.

Granted, the Christian Coalition asks questions about specific issues of concern to them, but then, so do the AFL-CIO, the Chamber of Commerce, and the National Education Association, three groups who have yet to be charged with violations stemming from election information which they have released. Mr. Russell maintains that the activities of his organization are far less substantial than the three previously mentioned organizations, which have less conservative emphases than does the Christian Coalition.

Ay there's the rub. But unlike the suggestion by Hamlet, the Christian Coalition seems to show little inclination to sleep, dream, or shuffle off this mortal coil.

Thirty years ago when mainline Protestant denominations accounted for approximately 40 percent of the electorate, and were content to allow the political left to lead the way in important social issues such as the civil rights movement, there was little, if any, protest against the movement of religious organizations in the arena of politics. That silence was encouraged because evangelical Christianity had abandoned the arena. Until recently, the loudest view has been that religious values have no role in politics.

This was unchallenged until conservative organizations began to contest for the battlefields they had ignored for decades. The voting strength of this broad based group has doubled from the 60s to its current strength of between 25 to 30 percent of the electorate. The vacuum over religious issues is once again being attacked.

It was perfectly acceptable for the evangelical Christian community to be silent -- the silent majority can easily be ignored -- but to speak up and claim the rights of free speech in all arenas of public life threatens those who have worked tirelessly to keep the status quo. Those who object to the Christian community taking an active, partisan role in the American political scene seem to forget that the Constitution of the United States protects the rights of religious individuals and organizations to engage in political activity. Religious organizations have the right to endorse specific candidates and parties in partisan activities and elections.

But the Federal Election Commission seems not to have noticed. They continue to file lawsuits which, if not calculated to do so, nevertheless require enormous financial expenditures to fight. Federal tax dollars, which fund the FEC, could be better used elsewhere, if only in view of their success record. An FEC lawsuit against the GOP Action Committee was dismissed, as was a suit charging the Christian Action Network with engaging in "express advocacy". The Supreme Court ruled against them in Colorado Republican Federal Campaign Committee Vs FEC.

Hmmmm. The GOP Action Committee. The Colorado Republican Federal Campaign Committee. The Christian Action Network. The Christian Coalition. Do you see a pattern here?

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reformed Judaism seems to, curiously, side with the Federal Election Commission. While acknowledging that the Christian Coalition has the right to participate in partisan politics, Rabbi Saperstein says, "such involvement tarnishes religion." Additionally he emphasizes, "The Christian Coalition has seemingly forgotten the distinction between the traditional prophetic role of religion in being a moral goad to the conscience of our nation and that of being a booster of one political party."

The purpose of a goad is to impel or to impress action upon the one who is goaded, to bring pressure or to harass. And while the actions of evangelical groups such as the Christian Coalition seem to be goading their constituents to action, they are definitely disturbing their detractors. Keep at it, good people. At least you have their attention.


Published in the Augusta Chronicle 8/17/96

Copyright 1996 by David Sisler

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