CBN Buys ‘Patriot Pastors’ Spin on Electioneering

In the past year, the IRS has investigated some churches over whether their political advocacy exceeded their non-profit parameters in the tax code — in which contributions are private and tax deductible – and pushed into the realm of regulated political action committees that give up some of the subsidies for charity and are required to disclose their work on behalf of candidates for office. Yesterday, reporter Michael Haverluck of Pat Robertson’s CBN looked at this complex issue, and whittled it down to its corresponding far-right talking point:

Will pastors’ ability to speak to their congregations about social and moral issues erode, or will their appeals to the First Amendment protect this right?

Haverluck cited as an example the activities of World Harvest Church of Ohio, led by televangelist Rod Parsley. Parsley, along with fellow Columbus-area megachurch pastor Russell Johnson, partnered with Ken Blackwell for a series of church “policy briefings” and political rallies, encouraging pastors across the state to mobilize their members to “vote their values” – all while Blackwell was running for governor. At issue was not “speak[ing] … about social and moral issues” so much as the pastors’ apparently brazen use of their churches to campaign for a candidate. Their efforts to build a new church-based political machine are described in People For the American Way’s report on these so-called “Patriot Pastors.”

In Haverluck’s telling, Parsley just happened to bump into Blackwell a couple of times:

Though Pastor Rod Parsley invited Republican and Democratic candidates to World Harvest Church’s events, only Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell showed up.

Blackwell is a conservative Christian who opposes abortion and gay marriage. His stance on these issues with Parsley motivated 56 liberal clergy to call for in an IRS investigation.

One complaint accuses Parsley of supporting Blackwell’s run for governor by letting him speak at events. Another claims that Parsley planned on having Blackwell on his radio spots, a baseless allegation denied by the pastor and the politician.

It is also contested without evidence that Parsley’s “Reformation Ohio” project, aiming to register 400,000 new voters, seeks only conservatives.

In fact, Parsley and Johnson hosted Blackwell as the featured guest speaker at numerous events, in which the candidate was honored with some award or endorsed explicitly from the stage. Parsley even flew Blackwell to one “Patriot Pastor” function on a church-owned plane. This campaign was only part of a broader agenda to promote Blackwell at bigger and bigger rallies featuring famous religious-right leaders, leading up to the primary election and beyond, and indeed including radio spots featuring Blackwell. The radio spots and the rallies with James Dobson never materialized, but far from being a “baseless allegation,” this plan was posted publicly on Johnson’s “Ohio Restoration Project” web site in 2005: you can read it here.

Blackwell’s lopsided loss in 2006 was certainly a major setback to Parsley’s efforts to build a “Patriot Pastor” political machine, but don’t count the charismatic pastor out: His new book, “Culturally Incorrect,” is currently 15 on Publisher’s Weekly’s bestseller list.