WASHINGTON, November 2 (By Maria Young for RIA Novosti) - From Catholic “Nuns on the Bus” to Jewish “Rabbis for Romney,” religious leaders in the land founded on the separation of church and state are raising their political voices to new highs and pushing the legal limits in the 2012 US election season.
“No faith says take care of your wealthy and let your poor go hungry,” said Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of the Roman Catholic social justice organization Network.
But in the midst of a tight race, many religious leaders have found themselves between the proverbial rock and its hard place this year, forced to choose between campaign platforms that promote one key aspect of their beliefs but sacrifice another.
The high stakes have blurred the already-hazy line of how far churches can wade publicly into politics without risking the tax-exempt status they enjoy under US tax law from the tax-collection agency, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
Nationwide, a record 1,586 Protestant pastors took part in Pulpit Freedom Sunday last month, openly and defiantly preaching on the biblical implications of candidates’ positions on social issues. That number marks a huge increase from the 33 pastors who took part in 2008.
“Pastors should decide what they preach from the pulpit, not the IRS,” said Erik Stanley, Senior Legal Counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, which organized the event for the fifth straight year. Their goal of the Alliance, he said, is to create a court case that can challenge the law.
The US Congress freed churches from paying taxes at the beginning of the last century, with a view to encouraging their charitable, philanthropic efforts.
Current US tax code states that entities “organized and operated exclusively for religious, charitable, … purposes” are exempt from paying taxes, provided they do not promote propaganda, attempt to influence legislation “or intervene in… any political campaign on behalf of any candidate for public office.”
Apart from Christians, other faiths say they also struggle with the tax-exempt restrictions, but for now will look for other ways to make their voices heard. On the eve of the 2012 presidential election, some say, it is a question of picking priorities.
Some Jewish leaders, for instance, who traditionally support Democratic Party candidates, are hard pressed to vote for President Barack Obama – the Democratic nominee – because of what they see as a his tepid support for Israel. They are also unhappy though with the economic views of his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney.
African American churches have long supported Democrats, but many this year are reluctant to back Obama because of his support for gay marriage. For many Catholics it comes down to traditional, anti-abortion beliefs versus a long-standing commitment to social justice.
“Cutting off food stamps for the working poor? That’s pro-life? Give me break,” asked Sister Campbell, using the term – “pro-life” – that many Republicans employ to describe their opposition to abortion.
Already politically outspoken as the head of a Washington-based lobbying group, she organized Nuns on the Bus this year, with scheduled stops at everything from schools and charities to football games in 11 states.
The tour is designed to provide nuns with a forum from which to speak publicly about political issues important to many Catholics, including the Church’s view on the budget proposed by vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan.
“It doesn’t pass the moral test,” Campbell says simply, a view shared publicly by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.
But she admits this election could put some Catholics in a quandary, pitting the pro-life, anti-gay beliefs held by Republican challenger Mitt Romney against social justice concerns supported by President Barack Obama.
Many Jews are in a similar quandary, caught in a tug of war between “Rabbis for Obama” who feel Romney is far too conservative on social issues, and “Rabbis for Romney” who feel Obama hasn’t done enough to support Israel.
“Israel has never before been used in the election as it’s being used this year,” said Ira Sheskin, Director of Jewish Demography Project at the University of Miami, pointing to anti-Obama billboards, television ads and editorials.
Republicans are going after the Jewish vote for good reason, he said. Although Jews comprise about two percent of the population, they tend to vote in record number, representing a higher percentage of the voting population that could make a difference in the swing states of Florida, Ohio and Nevada.
A Romney TV ad released in August after his trip to Israel, reminded voters, “As president, Barack Obama has never visited Israel and refuses to recognize Jerusalem as its capital. Mitt Romney will be a different kind of president — a strong leader who stands by our allies.”
A nationwide Gallup poll of Jewish voters conducted around the time of Romney’s trip showed 68 percent backed Obama, a sharp drop from 78 percent in 2008.
“There is no question that Obama and Netanyahu don’t get along – the chemistry is not good,” Sheshkin said.
But that assumes that Israel is the primary issue for most Jewish voters, which is not necessarily the case, he said. “Jewish voters are much more concerned about social issues than how a candidate feels about Israel.”
Rabbi Barry Silver with Congregation L'Dor Va-Dor in Florida doesn’t tell his synagogue who to vote for. But he has created scathing video parodies of Romney, posted on YouTube, and doesn’t hold back on what he sees as the deciding factors for Election Day, including the environment, helping the poor and women’s rights.
“For Jewish people, abortion rights, access to contraception, these are very important issues,” he said. “If Romney got into power, the right to religious freedom would be sacrificed.”
African Americans churches have historically not only supported Democratic candidates, but organized rallies and voter registration drives. This year, many say, Obama has done little to support the African American community, but really crossed a line in his endorsement of gay marriage.
“I know he’s the president of all of the people, but I want to remind the White House that we are people, too,” said Rev. Anthony Evans, president of the National Black Church Initiative, which represents 34,000 churches and 15 Christian denominations.
“I want him to address his African Americans as well as he addresses his gay Americans, as well as he addresses his white, middle class Americans.”
Though he and other church leaders are pushing congregations to vote as a matter of historic right, he estimates Obama could lose as much as 25 percent of the Black Christian vote.