Will Politics From the Pulpit Affect the Vote?


WASHINGTON, Oct. 12, 2004 -- -- At the World Harvest Church outside Columbus, Ohio, one thing the Rev. Rod Parsley will never tell his parishioners is who to vote for, at least not when he's preaching in front of his evangelical congregation.

"We are going to vote our values," Parsley told the congregation during a recent Sunday service.

But when asked later, Parsley told ABC News, "I can personally endorse a candidate ... I'd like to see George W. Bush as president because of the stands he has taken."

Mincing words is necessary because Parsley's church is a tax-exempt organization, and Internal Revenue Service rules prohibit religious leaders from endorsing candidates from the pulpit.

"If a pastor were to say the words 'vote' and 'Bush' or 'Kerry' in the same sentence, they are likely to have trouble from the IRS," said Anthony Picarello, president and general counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of religious groups.

Since moral issues are playing an important role in the 2004 presidential election, religious leaders are eager to weigh in.

At mosques across the United States, Muslim leaders are urging worshippers to register to vote and attend special "meet the candidate" forums to press politicians on issues of particular concern to Muslim and Arab-Americans, such as the Patriot Act and immigration policies.

At the progressive Riverside Church in New York City, the Rev. James Forbes doesn't have to come out and say, "Defeat George Bush." He's not conflicted about sharing his views.

"This war, people seem intimidated; they feel almost unpatriotic to challenge the present circumstances," said Forbes. "Why did we go? Why do we stay?"

At Temple Israel in Boston, Rabbi Jonah Pesner said he doesn't tell congregants who to vote for, but he does use his leadership role to speak on what he calls the key moral issues of this election.

"Public education, jobs, health care, child care for children, a responsible war on terror, a responsible war in Iraq, those are the things I preach about pretty clearly," he said.

It's conservative evangelicals who have most successfully organized over the past 20 years, often mobilizing around social issues. Parsley thinks the issue of gay marriage, which he and Bush oppose, is giving evangelicals a new focus.

"We will supercede what we saw in the '80s because this issue is so critical to our faith," he said.

"We're supposed to not tell you how to vote, but I'm gonna tell you how to vote," said the Rev. Adrian Rodgers from his pulpit at Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, Tenn., which boasts more than 28,000 members.

That's dangerous talk because of the IRS rule, and because liberal and conservative groups are trying to catch religious leaders telling congregants which way they should cast their votes.

According to Picarello, several groups are spying on churches as the election draws closer.

In Wichita, Kan., a liberal group sent spies to listen to sermons at conservative churches, and the IRS received a letter from Florida saying Democratic candidates were appearing in the pulpit of a black Baptist church, Picarello said.

Rodgers, however, is careful not to align his church politically.

"We're not going to be identified with any party, Democrat or Republican," he said. "We need to tell both parties to repent."

It's a fine line these pastors are walking -- trying to talk politics without sounding political.