At the Second Baptist Church in Houston, Texas, the aroma of politics has long filled the stained glass dome that crowns the vast faith home of its 22,000-member congregation, which includes significant players in the right wing of the Texas Republican Party. In 1992, the Republican Party of Harris County, in which the city of Houston resides, was effectively taken over by the Religious Right with the help of several of Second Baptist's most prominent members.
So when Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) against Second Baptist for alleged partisan political activity, right wing leaders responded with vehemence. For, if the IRS decides to act, its investigation could lead to the revocation of the tax-exempt status of one of the nation's largest conservative evangelical churches.
"In my humble opinion, anybody who would turn a church in to the IRS is a little bit lower than a child molester," said Christian Coalition president Pat Robertson to the viewers of his daily television show, "The 700 Club" on his Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN). Later in the broadcast, Robertson accused Americans United's Barry Lynn of "taking the fascist position" of muzzling the speech of religious groups. "In the case of Nazi Germany," he explained, "it was evangelical Christians and Jews. Here, it's apparently evangelical Christians."
Sharing the set that day with Robertson was Jay Sekulow, who heads the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), a legal advocacy group founded by Robertson in response to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
"The American Center for Law and Justice will meet Mr. Lynn and his organization in every courthouse, in every church, anywhere in the country when he tries to intimidate churches," Sekulow thundered at a press conference called to answer Lynn's complaint against Second Baptist. "It's an election season — [Lynn] knows it, we know it. He doesn't have the right to muzzle the church. End of discussion."
Second Baptist's troubles began when church/state separation activists became aware of a so-called voter education effort sponsored by the church called the Nehemiah Project. The project appears to have endorsed and opposed specific candidates for local offices who ran in the Republican primaries last March, activity forbidden for tax-exempt organizations under Section 501(c)(3) of the federal tax code. (In the United States, all religious congregations registered as such with the IRS are exempt from paying taxes unless their "exempt" status is revoked for violating the law.)
Visits to the church by concerned citizens yielded church/state separation activists David and Jo Martin a cache of documents intended for use in the precinct conventions. Among the documents distributed to participants in the Nehemiah Project and obtained by the Martins are draft resolutions on some 19 issues, ranging from gun control and congressional pay raises to the emblem issues of the Christian right — abortion, homosexuality, no-fault divorce, and parental rights.
One resolution titled: "No Con-Con: Protect the Constitution" asserts that "at most legislatures nationwide, unseen by the general public, a powerful group of elitists have worked constantly, using hot-button issues, guile and guise, to take this nation to a new constitutional convention, and it is the expectation that they will be back with a vengeance in 1996, with a new constitution ready to replace our great Constitution." The resolution goes on to call for the American people to be "ever vigilant" in the shadow of these secret forces.
Most of the resolutions are laid out as sample forms ostensibly designed for use in any party precinct convention (a blank having been left for the name of the party), though few of the positions taken would have a prayer of passage at a gathering of Democrats. Five out of the 19, however, are specific to the state GOP, and one would nail down the antiabortion plank of the national party platform, which Republican moderates have threatened to pry loose. Susan Feldtman, a board member of the Nehemiah Project, says she obtained the resolutions from the Texas Christian Coalition and the Texas Eagle Forum. Feldtman is also the Republican leader of her senatorial voting district.
At least one Nehemiah Project handout appears to implicate Second Baptist in a scheme to control the outcome of delegate elections in the Republican convention of a particular voting precinct. The handbill, simply titled "Precinct 436," begins: "The purpose of the Nehemiah Project is to show how you can have an EASY IMPACT on what government does. How? BY JUST SHOWING UP at your precinct meeting..." It goes on to tell voters what time to arrive and to look for Second Baptist member Doug Elliott, "who will be carrying a clipboard and wearing a red tie." Readers are then instructed to sign in with Elliott, who "will place your name on a list of delegates and alternates." Convention procedure for the election of delegates is discussed. "Listen carefully to make sure you are voting for the right slate! This is very important," participants are advised. "If a vote is being taken on Doug Elliott's or Tim McKay's slate, VOTE FOR the slate. If a vote is being taken on a different slate...VOTE AGAINST the slate."
Pastor Ed Young of Second Baptist contends that the handout was placed on a literature table in the church's visitor center without his knowledge or approval. "It was inappropriate," he told the Houston Chronicle. "We do not tell anybody how to vote or how to think," he said. However, when interviewed by CBN's Chris Mitchell, Young abandoned the contrite tone he used with the secular press. "As long as we stay behind the stained glass, everybody says, we're happy with the church. You have your little holy huddles and love one another and be sweet. You begin to speak out, then really the water meets the wheel; that's where opposition comes."
Yet the ACLJ's Jay Sekulow, in his "700 Club" appearance with Pat Robertson, argued not that the Nehemiah Project handout was inappropriate, but that the IRS's prohibitions against partisan activity by tax-exempt organizations are unconstitutional.
Karen Kay Kristopher is a member of Second Baptist Church, a true believer in the dominionist theology preached there by Pastor Young. But when Kristopher, then a candidate for the Republican nomination for justice of the peace in her district, tried to participate in a meeting of the Nehemiah Project, she says, she was shunned in favor of the group's allegedly anointed candidate for the same office, Mark Fury. In an affidavit filed with the Texas Ethics Commission, Kristopher accuses Judy Craig, director of ministry networks for Second Baptist Church, of ordering Kristopher to "go sit down" during a Nehemiah Project meeting during which other candidates for office who were not church members were permitted to mingle with attendees and pass out campaign literature.
According to the affidavit, Craig demanded that Kristopher not distribute literature for her own campaign, and expressed misgivings about Kristopher's presence at the meeting for fear it might be mistaken by others as an endorsement of Kristopher by the church. All of the candidates present that night, Kristopher says, were Republicans.
In the room where the meeting was held that February night, Kristopher contends there was "such a spirit of oppression, such a spirit of manipulation — just totally wrong..." But the final blow came on primary day, she explains, when she went to greet voters in what she says was a legal manner in the parking lot of Second Baptist, which happened to be the polling place for Kristopher's voting district. Church officials called the police, she asserts, to try to have her removed from the grounds. Freedom Writer's call to Second Baptist's Judy Craig was not returned.
Kristopher's complaint to the ethics commission includes allegations of the use of church services and property (such as photocopying and meeting rooms) for the use of partisan political activity without the filing of a report to the state treasurer, as required by law. In her interview with Freedom Writer, Kristopher made it clear that she, like many in the Christian right, does not believe in separation of church and state. Her problem with the Nehemiah Project, she says, is the apparent dishonesty with which it is administered. "I don't wish any harm to come to Second Baptist," she said, "but I do think that the Nehemiah group should be separated from the church, even to protect the church, because Second Baptist is such a political church and is very moneyed."
Named for the Old Testament figure who rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem after the Judeans returned from exile in Babylon, the Nehemiah Project claims the support of the Texas Christian Coalition, Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum, and Donald Wildmon's American Family Association. When Freedom Writer called these organizations to confirm their participation in the project, only the Eagle Forum returned its call, and then to simply have a representative who identified herself only by her first name say that "Mrs. Schlafly is not familiar with the project," but perhaps the chair of the Texas chapter was.
Our call to Cathie Adams, chair of Texas Eagle Forum, was returned by the Nehemiah Project's Susan Feldtman, who explained that, despite its help with the draft resolutions, the Eagle Forum was not a direct sponsor of the voter project. Wildmon, Schlafly, Adams, Christian Coalition President Pat Robertson, and Second Baptist's Pastor Young are all members of the Council for National Policy (CNP), the powerful and secretive right wing umbrella group founded by Rev. Timothy LaHaye and others in 1981.
Houston's Second Baptist has always been more than just a house of worship. For rank-and-file members, the church serves as community center that tends to nearly every aspect of a congregant's life. A keen example of the "mega-church" phenomenon, Second Baptist even has a bowling alley under its roof.
But the church's real power lies with its role in both secular and religious politics. The Nehemiah Project was founded six years ago at Second Baptist, as the time Religious Right was gaining control of the Harris County Republican Party. The right's victory was reflected all too clearly in the Republicans' 1992 National Convention, at which failed presidential candidate Patrick J. Buchanan declared, "There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America," and second lady Marilyn Quayle appalled women nationwide with her railings against feminism. Though the intolerant tone of that convention is widely seen as having cost George Bush the election, his loss did nothing to lessen the influence of the Christian right on the party of Lincoln.
The takeover of the Harris County party was engineered by Steven Hotze, a Christian reconstructionist and signer of the Coalition on Revival's infamous manifesto. (See "The Great Right Hope" by Frederick Clarkson in Challenging the Right: The Activist's Handbook by Skipp Porteous and Clarkson.) Bill Borden, a board member of the Nehemiah Project, is one of Hotze's most trusted lieutenants in the GOP.
One of Second Baptist's most prominent members is retired judge Paul Pressler, who oversees, with former Attorney General Edwin Meese III, the Law and Justice Committee of the CNP. At the CNP's May 1995 gathering, Pressler presided with Meese over a discussion about damage to the right's image in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing. Pressler also spoke on a panel against affirmative action.
It's in the religious world, though, that Pressler has perhaps made his strongest mark. Just after the founding of the Moral Majority by right wing activists in 1979, Pressler emerged as the prime architect of the 1980 fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, the second largest denominational body in the U.S. (The Roman Catholic Church is the largest.) In what was to become the prototype for the Christian Coalition's takeover of the Republican Party apparatus in some 31 states, Pressler exploited weaknesses in the Baptist Convention's bylaws and constitution to load the convention with right wing delegates ("messengers" in the parlance of the faith) who would vote in Pressler's policy agenda and slate of candidates for leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention. At his side was Second Baptist's Pastor Ed Young, who later assumed the presidency of the Convention.
It was Young who summoned Jay Sekulow to his aid when Americans United registered its complaint against Young's church with the IRS. Given the stature of Second Baptist among the nation's Christian theocrats, it's no wonder the ACLJ chief responded with such vigor. "We drafted a letter back to the Internal Revenue Service," Sekulow told Robertson's TV viewers, "that says this: that the IRS is supposed to be an independent governmental agency. Barry Lynn's organization, Americans United for Separation of Church and State is not a special agent of the Internal Revenue Service, and the IRS better not become the pawn of Americans United..."
And the right has reason to fear Lynn and Americans United, whose complaint against a New York church that ran ads against Bill Clinton in the 1992 presidential campaign led to the revocation of the church's tax-exempt status. As a result, Sekulow's organization has launched a suit against the IRS that is still pending in the U.S. District Court in Washington, DC. In his suit Church at Pierce Creek v. the Internal Revenue Service, Sekulow argues that tax-code restrictions on the political speech of churches infringes on the right to free speech guaranteed under the First Amendment. (Bear in mind, though, that Sekulow's organization rejects the "wall of separation between church and state" that has formed the cornerstone of First Amendment Establishment Clause jurisprudence during this century.)
Should Sekulow win, says Oliver Thomas, special counsel to the National Council of Churches, religious organizations would be able to operate as political action committees, but without the financial disclosure requirements and restrictions on contributions that now apply to PACs. "It's all part of this big picture on the part of some on the Religious Right," Thomas explains. Barry Lynn adds, "Some clergy, unfortunately, seem to believe that they can operate above the law and create political machines in the church basement. This has got to stop..."
"Churches ought to be exempt from taxation in order to strengthen and firm up the wall of separation," asserts Oliver Thomas, but with the tax exemption, he explains, comes the responsibility for restraint in the political arena.
Second Baptist congregant Karen Kristopher says that despite her cooperation with Americans United, she hopes they fail to win the revocation of her church's tax exemption. Her desire, she insists, is to have the incident serve as "a wake-up call to the Body of Christ," a term used by many Christians to describe the universal church.
"God is in control," Kristopher explains. "He is going to use every bit of this stuff with the Second Baptist and the media...for His glory, because Jesus Christ is coming back, but the Body of Christ — we must be spotless. We must be cleaned up first in order for God to use us to reach the world through the Holy Spirit. We must be honest; we must be clean ourselves, or how can we be a witness to the world?"