Wednesday, September 29, 2004

LYNCHBURG, Va. — The 4 million evangelical Christians who did not vote in 2000 will unite behind President Bush in November, the Rev. Jerry Falwell said yesterday.

With five weeks until the presidential election, Mr. Falwell said he is trying to muster conservative evangelical ministers to support the Republican ticket. He continued to mobilize the nation’s evangelical base at Liberty University here earlier this week, by holding a seminar on preaching about conservative politics from the pulpit without forfeiting tax-exempt status.

Mr. Falwell said yesterday that he plans to hold at least 40 similar talks in several battleground states in the next month. He promised “a landslide” victory for Mr. Bush on Election Day.

“I think the evangelicals are going to play a major part in that,” said Mr. Falwell, who founded Liberty University in 1971 and was one of the co-founders of the Moral Majority religious conservative movement in the 1980s.

The seminar, “Politics and Pulpit,” drew about 500 church leaders, despite opposition from the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. It was one of several workshops held during a three-day “Super Conference” that Mr. Falwell holds each year for Christian ministers. More than 3,000 Christian leaders from across the country attended the conference.

Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn has said Mr. Falwell’s advice encourages churches to violate or risk violating IRS tax codes for tax-exempt organizations. He sent a letter to Southern Baptist leaders, including Mr. Falwell, urging them not to attend the seminar.

Mr. Falwell called Mr. Lynn’s claims “intimidation tactics.”

Karl Rove, an adviser to the Bush administration, has said 4 million of the country’s 80 million evangelical Christians did not vote in the 2000 election.

Mr. Falwell said that was because they were not sure if Mr. Bush was conservative enough.

“Now they know him,” Mr. Falwell said. “It’s the highest energy level we’ve had since 1984. The turnout will be incredible.”

However, Mr. Lynn has accused Mr. Falwell of violating tax codes by sending to other religious leaders an e-mail in which he endorsed Mr. Bush.

Churches are allowed to take positions on issues and legislation, as long as it does not surpass 5 percent to 20 percent of their total activity. They are not allowed to endorse any political candidate, give money to a candidate or political action group, or engage in partisan political activity, said Mathew D. Staver, president and general counsel of Liberty Counsel, an Orlando, Fla.-based nonprofit group.

Mr. Staver said Mr. Falwell’s e-mail did not mention his church or Liberty University, and that church leaders can engage in partisan politics if it is on an individual basis separate of their church. “The church had nothing to do with that,” Mr. Staver said.

In 1993, one of Mr. Falwell’s religious groups called the Old Time Gospel Hour retroactively lost its tax-exempt status from 1986 to 1987 because, Mr. Lynn said, the group used ministry resources to support congressional candidates.

Mr. Falwell claimed the tax-status decertification was simply part of a settlement to get the IRS out of his hair after a four-year investigation in the wake of the PTL Network scandal involving televangelists Jim Bakker and his then-wife, Tammy Faye Bakker, in the 1980s.

Mr. Falwell said the only violation the IRS found was that he sold Bibles to a political action group at a discount price.

At the conference this week, pastors said they now feel more confident about speaking to their congregations about politics and encouraging their parishioners to vote.

The Rev. John J. Hamric, who heads the 250-member Fishersville Baptist Church in Fishersville, Va., said he expected to hand out voter-registration information at his church this Sunday as a result of the “Politics and Pulpit” seminar.

He said he recently received an e-mail threatening to “sue you for all your worth,” if he tried to register church members to vote. Mr. Hamric said he did not remember which group had sent him the e-mail because he immediately deleted it.

“I don’t care about a lawsuit, because I’m not violating the Constitution,” Mr. Hamric said. He said he does not encourage church members to vote for one party or candidate. … “I do encourage people to vote pro-life and pro-family, because that comes from Scripture.”

The Rev. Al Peverall, who heads the 900-member Jackson Memorial Baptist Church in Chesapeake, Va., said he also does not endorse political parties or candidates from the pulpit. But he said the seminar “affirmed some of what I know, but gave me a greater sense of confidence.”

“Christianity is not a political entity, but on the other hand, Christians should not be afraid to engage in the culture or politics,” he said. “I can’t say ‘vote Democrat’ or ‘Republican.’ I can say to them, ‘Vote Christian,’ which is a vote on the basis of moral and spiritual values.”

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