Religion and Politics 101: A Q&A with Rev. Steven Baines
Hawkins, Beth, MinnPost.com
How come churches on both sides of the issues were so active in last year's elections? How can they maintain their tax-exempt status if they're preaching about politics? Is it true that religious freedoms are under threat in the current political climate?
You've got questions, the Minnesota chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State has answers. The group, a relative newcomer here, is sponsoring three appearances this weekend by the Rev. Steven Baines, director of religious outreach for its national parent organization. An ordained Southern Baptist minister, Baines has a passion for the intersection of politics and religion and for issues involving the separation of church and state.
On Saturday, April 27, from 3 to 5 p.m. Baines will appear at the Southdale Public Library, 7001 York Ave. S., Edina. His talk is entitled, "Are You Seeing Double? The Blurring of Religion and Politics in America."
On Sunday he will talk about "The Perils of Politicized Pulpits" at 9:30 a.m. at the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, 900 Mount Curve Ave., Minneapolis. From 4 to 6 p.m. he will participate in conversations with local faith leaders at SpringHouse Ministry Center, 610 W. 28th St., Minneapolis.
All three events are free and open to the public. RSVPs are requested for the Sunday afternoon event to email@example.com or to 612-547-MNAU (6628).
Baines took a little time off from preparing to preview his remarks for MinnPost readers. What follows is an edited version of that conversation.
MinnPost: Over the last couple of years churches have been quite active in politics, both in Minnesota and elsewhere. Are you seeing an uptick? What do you think of this?
The Rev. Steven Baines: There was a myth going around in the early 2000s that the religious right was dead. We at Americans United said, "They're not dead. They are just regrouping. They're trying to figure out their next angle and their next organizing effort."
And lo and behold, after [President Barack] Obama was elected the Tea Party came to be, and while the Tea Party had its grassroots movement in working against the health-care policy and tax laws, it was quickly co-opted by the forces of the religious right. Many believe -- and the Public Religion Research Institute has borne this out -- that the makeup of the Tea Party are evangelical Christians who really want to keep their view of religion imposed in government and public policies.
We saw that carried out in 2010 with the midterm elections. And I can't imagine that people did not see it very clearly in the Republican primary leading up to the 2012 elections with Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry. All of these candidates were claiming that God had anointed them to be the next president of the United States.
MP: What are the rules about religion and politics?
SB: All houses of worship, whatever their faith position, are incorporated under the same nonprofit guidelines as we at Americans United: As a 501 (c) 3 nonprofit educational organization. According to the IRS guidelines, you can engage in public policy. You can even do a certain amount of lobbying on different legislation or ballot initiatives. But you are forbidden to use your tax-exempt organization to endorse political candidates, or to oppose political candidates or to endorse or oppose political parties.
The government has said all of the tithes and offerings that come into your house of worship are nontaxable. In order to maintain your tax-exempt status you simply have to stay out of direct political engagement of parties and candidates. It doesn't mean you have to silence your faithful beliefs, or your prophetic beliefs on issues that are important to you.
Obviously, I wouldn't have a job as director of religious outreach if we weren't engaging people of faith on important social- justice issues. But you cross the line when you endorse candidates.
This past October, just a month before the election, the Alliance Defending Freedom, a very far-right religious organization in this country, prodded more than 1,500 clergy to stand up in their pulpit and directly oppose President Obama for re-election. …