They say politics makes for strange bedfellows. The same might be said about religion.
That's why there is a certain inevitable synchronicity to the news that the Rev. Mac Hammond, our local televangelist from Living Word Christian Center, has joined the campaign of Michele Bachmann. So, we have a pastor who has fought with the IRS for decades, teaming up with a former IRS lawyer in a presidential campaign with an anti-tax platform.
On the face of it, we have Bachmann's desperate attempt to solidify the far right of her evangelical base by appealing to Hammond's "prosperity gospel" followers, who espouse the religious variant of Gordon Gekko's Wall Street slogan that "Greed is good." Give your soul -- and money -- to the church and you will be rewarded.
It's not just Hammond's congregation of about 9,000 she's after, but the extended prosperity gospel network, including the resources and fortunes of the godfather of the movement, Kenneth Copeland.
What's in it for Hammond is less clear, except a national profile and an ability to spread his message should Bachmann turn her flailing campaign around. As he told me during his only lengthy media interview back in 2007: "Our mandate is to exercise greater influence in the community than the ungodly elements seem to exercise."
But Hammond's new role, which he says is personal and apart from his pastoral role at LWCC, also comes with risks. Federal laws prohibit religious leaders from endorsing candidates from the pulpit, something Hammond did, and apologized for, in the past. In fact, one church-state watchdog group said Hammond may have already done it again by announcing his role in this campaign.
"That, to me, shows the level of silliness of the 'no endorsement' rule," said Tom Berg, a professor at the University of St. Thomas who studies state-church issues. Pastors "may well have a case they should be able to endorse from the pulpit," but with Hammond's ongoing relationship with the campaign, how will church members know whether church funds are being used to support Hammond's role in the campaign, instead of charity? Berg asked.
Tara Malloy, associate counsel with the Campaign Legal Center in Washington, D.C., a watchdog group, says Hammond has the right as an individual to engage in politics, but if he brings that back to the church in sync with the campaign, "it gets tricky."
Both bet the IRS will be watching.
Hammond's public support of Bachmann back in 2006 launched an attempted audit of LWCC by the IRS. A local court ruled that LWCC did not have to turn over financial records because the wrong person at the agency issued the subpoena, which may have emboldened Hammond to again link up with Bachmann.
After Hammond said he'd vote for Bachmann (even though he didn't live in her district), the church also suffered financially. When I asked Brian Sullivan, LWCC spokesman, back in February 2008 about falling church attendance, he said: "To be honest with you, with a little bit of the fallout relative to Michele Bachmann, we're taking a little bit more careful road. I don't think we crossed the line, but it raised concerns and suspicions."
Consider them raised, again.
Malloy said the government has "historically been reluctant to get involved in church finances, for understandable reasons." But most people agree groups shouldn't use public money to pursue political objectives. The feds have gone after churches on both sides of the political aisle, she said.
Hammond is certainly correct in saying that many preachers on both sides of the spectrum toe the line, and cross it, without getting throttled by the feds. Do the names Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rev. Al Sharpton and Rev Jeremiah Wright ring any bells?
And just like Wright, whose loopy screeds against Jews and America came under scrutiny because of his connection to Barack Obama, so will Hammond's past and words.
Those include long-ago IRS problems, controversial statements about Muslims, alleged sweetheart loans from the church, his financial arrangements regarding his jet, and an opulent lifestyle that is difficult to scrutinize because churches, and churches alone, remain protected from such transparency.
My take? Go ahead and debate whether religious figures should be able to express opinions in the pulpit, but only if they first agree to either waive their tax-exempt status, or, at the very least, provide as much financial disclosure as any other nonprofit.
"There are very good arguments that churches shouldn't get into politics," said Berg. He paraphrased Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote that churches have an ability to "speak to universal hopes, fears and concerns," but when they turn partisan, Berg said, "They forfeit that ability."
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