Religion must stay out of American Politics

How closely are Arizona Cardinals Quarterback Kurt Warner and Philadelphia Eagles Quarterback Donovan McNabb connected to Campbell’s Soup? How close is the relationship between Pepsi and singers Beyoncé Knowles and Britney Spears?

The connection is, of course, that these famous people are paid to speak (or sing) in support of a company. Companies have no problem with hiring product spokespeople to advertise a product to their customers.

In many cases, the spokesperson for a company is famous because they founded that company. For example, Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas was a frequent television spokesperson before his death. David Oreck, founder of the Oreck Vacuum Company is a frequent radio spokesperson for his product. Other such superstars include Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, etc.

If a spokesperson’s image doesn’t match that of the company, the spokesperson can quickly be fired as when Whoopi Goldberg was dropped as Slim-Fast’s spokesperson after her sexually explicit puns about George W. Bush during John Kerry’s July 2004 New York fundraiser.

But what happens when the founder and CEO of a company takes an unpopular or political stance? The company would have a difficult time firing Steve Jobs over his unpopular opinion about electronic waste and the environment earlier this year – a position that could directly impact Apple’s bottom line. Viacomm CEO Sumner Redstone’s enthusiastic endorsement of George W. Bush for president is also controversial.

Face it, in some cases – the founder or CEO of an organization is often inseparable from the image of that organization.

Sumner Redstone’s endorsement was controversial not only because of the possibility of an unfair relationship between business and politics, but also because Viacomm controls so many media outlets that the company, at Redstone’s orders, could have directly influenced the vote by choosing how to present the election to its viewers.

Mr. Redstone did later say that the question caught him by surprise and that he was only speaking on his own behalf, not on behalf of Viacomm – but he DID make an endorsement, and was able to make that widely heard endorsement due to his position as CEO. This is a power that a normal person usually doesn’t have – and those who do have such power often try to follow the more ethical practice of keeping their personal opinions out of view. When asked which candidate he endorsed, the CEO of Time Warner, Richard Parsons, rightly declined (same link as above) to make any sort of endorsement because of the danger that his personal opinion could be taken as that of his company.

So how does this compare to a religious leader or spokesperson?

Religious leaders are exactly analogous to both public spokespersons and to corporate CEOs and founders. Religious Leaders such as James Dobson, Pat Robertson, and Jerry Falwell are literally inseparable from the organizations that they have founded and currently lead.

This applies to religious leaders at many levels. The Pope speaks for the entire Catholic Church, while a preacher in the pulpit might speak only for a neighborhood church that he founded. Religious leaders who are inseparable from their churches may speak directly to congregations of hundreds, even thousands of people.

If a religious leader is popular, charismatic, and the leader of a large organization then he or she may often have an entire media distribution service at his or her disposal. Such a leader may speak on normal Television networks, or might speak on his privately owned radio network. Bott Radio Network is a good example of a Christian radio network that owns not only studios, but transmitting stations around the United States.

If religious leaders were to take unpopular or political stances, it becomes much more difficult to ‘fire’ them than it would be for a corporation to fire its founder or CEO. Religious leaders often have immense control over their organizations. Some might say their control was cult-like.

Is it right for a business to become deeply involved in a political campaign? There are Federal laws that limit the money a company is legally allowed to give to a presidential campaign, and how that money can be used. This is done in order to attempt to ensure a fair election.

If allowed, a business could easly give so much aid to a candidate that it could unfairly swing an election – a corporation could influence a campaign out of proportion to the general population. A corporation controlled by a few people could control an election outcome by skewing the information provided to the general public.

If it is controversial and unfair for a corporation to influence a political campaign, then it must be at least as unfair for a religious organization to do the same. A religious leader whose message resonates with his listeners and congregation could speak to millions. A religious leader could, in effect, order his congregation to vote in a certain manner.

Although there is a lot of debate currently over corporate money in politics, there has not been as much debate over religious (or non-profit) money and pulpit electioneering until fairly recently. Perhaps people believe that such debate is unnecessary because religions must comply with the Federal Laws for tax-exempt status.

According to Federal Law, tax-exempt organizations are prohibited from becoming involved in politics.
From the IRS web site:
Under law, tax-exempt organizations described in section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code are prohibited from participating or intervening in any political campaign on behalf of, or in opposition to, any candidate for public office. Charities, educational institutions and religious organizations, including churches, are among those that are covered under this code section.
In today’s “New and Improved” religious climate, Churches, tax-exempt organizations, and others are challenging this law. The new religious climate under the GOP has encouraged religious organizations to attempt to more openly influence elections. Instances of IRS investigation of tax-exempt organizations have also increased.

This increase of IRS investigations have encouraged religious leaders, in league with religious lawmakers, to attempt to change the law to allow churches to legally influence American politics – which would serve to further smash the “Wall between Church and State.”

Earlier this year the Freedom of Speech Restoration Act was introduced, for a third time, in Congress. The purpose of this deceptively named act would be to make it legal for a religious organization to endorse a political candidate.

This is a bad idea. It’s bad enough that corporations are looking for political loopholes that allow them to elect leaders that will help them maximize their profits at any cost.

When a religious organization tries to influence politics they do it to impose their religious values upon the rest of the nation. If left unchecked, this could result in the reduction or removal of hard-earned personal freedoms such as the right to contraception, free speech, and even the right of dissent.

I’m not talking just about the “Divine Right of Kings” here, I’m speaking about the possibility of a return to the era of Comstock Law in America. For those of you who slept through history class (or got a ‘sanitized version of American history) Anthony Comstock was a self-proclaimed moralist who was able to persuade Congress to make it illegal to ship ‘obscene’ material through the mail. Of course, ‘obscene’ was defined to include information about contraception, blasphemy, and even anatomy textbooks for medical students. Comstock’s efforts were firmly supported by the religious majority of the late 1800’s. His efforts lead to the jailing of publishers of Freethought tracts that advocated a secular worldview, among others.

Allowing religious organizations to have a political voice is unethical. There is too much power concentrated in too few people in any religious organization. This was actually used as an argument by Protestant churches against electing Al Smith, a practicing Catholic, as president in 1928. (JFK overcame the 'Catholic Bias' by proclaiming that he wouldn't follow orders of the Pope during his presidency.)

Now that conservative Protestant religions have become powerful they’ve become shortsighted and have decided this argument is no longer valid.

It is important that America be protected from powerful organizations, both corporate and religious, that would unfairly influence American politics for selfish motives. This country is a representative democracy, not an oligarchy. We should be governed “by the people” as stated in our constitution.

Enron and Focus on the Family should not govern America. That’s just wrong.

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