RALEIGH – In the now-classic Monty Python skit, Michael Palin plays the leader of the “Church Police,” who are called in to determine the religious affiliation of dead bishops found outside London apartments. But there’s another kind of church policing that is more familiar to the political world – the hair-trigger posture of self-styled First Amendment organizations who zero in on any reported connection between Republican candidates and religious conservatives.
They were the bane of the Christian Coalition for years, until the group essentially imploded. Candidates who invoked religious principles in campaign statements were savaged as theocrats. Churches that allowed voter guides to be distributed detailing the positions of individual candidates on issues were accused of violating the sacred separation of church and state.
Until recently, at least, the Church Police only went so far. No one really bothered to investigate the political activities of African American churches – which, if I may be so bold, have become appendages of the Democratic Party in many communities. For years, politicians have made political speeches at black churches, taken up collections for political causes, and otherwise trampled over the very real boundary that does and should exist between tax-exempt religious organizations and partisan political activity.
I must commend one leading member of the Church Police, activist Barry Lynn, for being consistent and questioning the conduct of Wake County Sheriff John Baker, a leading African-American politician who, it turns out, has been campaigning in churches this year. Baker’s apparent transgressions have been reported to the IRS (click here) and I guess we’ll have to see if anything happens.
A story in Sunday’s Charlotte Observer (for the statewide AP version click here) details a new effort by black religious leaders to make sure the delay in North Carolina’s primaries this year doesn’t result in a low black turnout. The political import of their activities is obvious, though not owned-up to.
The religious leaders quoted in the article and others might well defend the use of black churches for political activity on the grounds that these institutions played a critical role in the civil rights movement. Fair enough, although that effort wasn’t about electoral politics as such. The point is that religious conservatives believe their causes – opposition to abortion and infanticide, for example, or tax fairness for traditional families – to involve great moral issues, as well. Let’s either sic the Church Police on everyone, or retire them to sketch comedy.