Churches, Politics and the IRS: Right-Wing Clergy and Their Politician Allies Are Trying to Build Illegal Church-Based Political Machines in Ohio and Other States, but This Year the Federal Tax Agency Seems Ready to Stop Them
Boston, Rob, Church & State
In the Book of Matthew, Jesus advises that if someone strikes you, the proper response is not to hit back but to turn the other cheek.
The Rev. Rod Parsley of World Harvest Church in Columbus, Ohio, has a different view of how to deal with perceived enemies. A recent profile of Parsley in The New Yorker noted that at one Sunday service, the Pentecostal mega-church pastor called for raising up a spiritual army to "track down our adversary, defeat him valiantly, then stand upon his carcass."
Parsley's sermons, the article noted with some understatement, "are notable for their graphic detail."
A casual observer might be tempted to inquire just who Parsley's adversaries are. Increasingly the answer seems to be anyone who opposes not Parsley's theology, but his politics. The "spiritual army" Parsley is raising, his critics assert, is more concerned with determining who next occupies the Ohio governor's mansion than saving souls.
Parsley and his allies have made Ohio ground zero for battles over religion and politics this year. The flamboyant preacher, who sports a spiky crew cut and often sermonizes in a denim jacket, has joined forces with another mega-church pastor, the more staid-looking Russell Johnson, to remake Ohio politics in a decidedly more conservative vein.
The duo's agenda is rife with familiar Religious Right goals: a ban on legal abortion and embryonic stem-cell research, taxpayer funding to churches under the guise of "faith-based" initiatives, opposition to public education, strident anti-gay proposals, attacks on evolution and so on.
In his book Silent No More, Parsley observes, "The Constitution says nothing about the separation of church and state.... The words did appear in a constitution once, though; the old constitution of the Soviet Union. I don't think we want to model ourselves on that disastrous experiment."
That two ministers would pursue such goals is not unusual. But their tactics have raised plenty of questions: The pair has spent months aggressively promoting Republican gubernatorial candidate Kenneth Blackwell--even using church planes to ferry him to events before conservative religious audiences all over the state. As a result, the two pastors stand accused of violating federal tax law.
Both men run tax-exempt, non-profit organizations, and a coalition of moderate and progressive Ohio clergy believe the duo are using those groups to engineer a Blackwell victory, a clear violation of the Internal Revenue Code. (See "Buckeye Backlash," March 2006 Church & State.)
Johnson leads Fairfield Christian Church, a 3,500-member non-denominational congregation in Lancaster, Ohio. But a separate entity he created, the Ohio Restoration Project (ORP), serves as his political arm. It has been especially active.
As the The Columbus Dispatch reported recently, "[The] Ohio Restoration Project has held several events across the state since August 2005. All have featured Blackwell in some way, and for that reason some have said that proves the group is merely a front for the candidate."
Johnson is clear about his goals. As The New Yorker observed, "Johnson created the Ohio Restoration Project with the goal of enlisting two thousand pastors to commit themselves to registering three hundred new voters each by the end of 2006. He planned to raise a million dollars and to hold meetings across the state to find these 'Patriot Pastors.' On his church's Web site he wrote, 'This is a battle between the forces of righteousness and the hordes of hell.'" Johnson also told the article's author, "This is to elect values candidates."
To Johnson, politics is religious war. According to The Columbus Dispatch, he said, "We believe that we're at the beaches of spiritual Normandy, and we're looking at the secular pillboxes up on the hillside, and we're going to take that hill just like they did at Normandy."
Ohio isn't the only state seeing a coordinated effort to mix religion and partisan politics this election year. …