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Friday, May 18

Atheists Should Monitor Church Voter Guides

Fight the Christian Right by Watching Political Churches

By , Guide

Every election year, and especially during presidential election years, there are complaints about voter guides distributed to churches by Christian Right and Christian Nationalist organizations. These guides purport to be neutral explanations of candidates' positions, but in reality they are designed to promote particular candidates at the expense of others. The purpose is to help elect conservatives who will push the Christian Nationalist agenda. You can help fight this.

Origins of Church Voter Guides

The original and most most notorious voters guides were first created by the Christian Coalition in 1990 and given out to conservative churches around America over the course of several years. In the 1992 and 1996 presidential elections, for example, they distributed over 40 million guides in conservative churches. It was easy for politicians to be listed in these guides in ways that appeared to cast them as "anti-Christian" because of their votes onissues related to abortion, feminism, or gay rights.
Because a negative rating in the Christian Coalition voters guides could mean failure in primary elections, candidates were "encouraged" to move farther and father to the right on every issue. This helped create increased polarization in America's political institutions, driving everyone even vaguely "moderate" out of the Republican Party.
The Christian Coalition nearly lost their tax-exempt status because of the partisan nature of their voter guides and a settlement with the IRS only prevented that from because the Christian Coalition agreed to allow candidates to provide a few words of explanation about their position on the issues covered. Other groups create voters guides, too, though, and the problems continue.

Monitoring Church Voter Guides

1. Collect Information: If you aren't already familiar with the identity and location of local churches which promote right-wing religion and politics, that should be the first thing you do. It might help to create a map of your area with the location of each church marked.
2. Visit Churches Before Election Season: You should visit these churches during Sunday religious services before election season starts in order to get an idea of just how political the church really is. Even some very fundamentalist churches avoid overt political issues during sermons — either to avoid violating tax laws or due to the conviction that their job isn't to change politics. One way or another, your goal here is to see what sorts of brochures and flyers have been made available in the lobby.
3. Look For Political Material: Most churches have a table or some other means for distributing such material and if they offer voter guides to parishioners, this may be where you'll find them. If you can take a picture of them sitting there, do so as proof that they are available alongside internal church pamphlets. Take a copy of this and any other political material, then continue on to the next church. It would also be a good idea to look at the church's web site to see what sort of political material, if any, is posted there.
4. Maintain a Paper Trail: Keep a record of anything and everything you find during your research. When you sit through a sermon that seems especially political, keep notes about the date, church, and the political issues covered. If you pick up any voters guides, write the date and church somewhere on the back to create a record of where it came from. Save any pictures you take of displays that are of a political nature.

Challenging Church Voter Guides

At home, you can examine the voter guides carefully to see whether they are genuine attempts to provide neutral information or if they are in fact attempts to avoid tax laws. If you suspect the latter, there are several things you can do. At the very least, you should contact an organization like Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. If there is a legitimate violation of the law, they can pursue the case with the IRS.
First-time violations are usually handled by the IRS with a warning letter — tax laws are complex enough that this is reasonable. Repeated violations, however, can be punished more severely; but how will the IRS know about repeat violations unless someone tells them? That's why it's important for someone in the local community to keep an eye on the voter guides being distributed by churches — it's unlikely that a church member will report their church to the authorities, so you'll have to do it.
You might also want to consider taking some independent action, for example by writing letters:
Write to the Church: Complaints to the church's pastor or elders probably won't accomplish much besides letting them know that their actions are being watched. This may or may not be good, depending on what steps you are trying to take — you do not, for example, want them to hide the guides and make it harder for outsiders to know what they are doing. If you do write to the church, be polite and stick to the legal issues and facts.
Write to the Media: Writing a letter to the editor of a local newspaper or local news can help bring public attention to the issue. Some attention will be negative towards you, but it might also help you find allies in your efforts. If you're lucky, there may be a local reporter or two interested in doing a more in-depth story on the sorts of voter guides being distributed in local churches.
Write a Blog: If you haven't already started a blog to discuss the intersection of religion and politics in your local area, this might be a good opportunity to do so. You'll have more freedom to say what you think needs to be said, but remember to write in a way that focuses people's attentions on the issues rather than on you. This means sticking to the facts and the law as much as possible instead of rants about religion.
It is easier for problems like this to continue when people are unaware of them, so altering people to what's going on should help make it harder for violations to keep coming back year after year.
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