First up from the God Machine this week is something called "Pulpit Freedom Sunday," which is scheduled for tomorrow, and which intends to test religio-political boundaries in interesting ways.
To briefly summarize federal tax law, tax-exempt houses of worship and religious ministration are prohibited from intervening in political campaigns, either in support of or opposition to a candidate or a party. Those who violate the law run the risk of IRS penalties, up to and including the loss of their tax-exempt status.
With this in mind, groups like American United for Separation of Church and State, hoping to prevent the religious right from creating a church-based political machine, reminds religious leaders every four years of the law, urging them to reject the advances of parties and candidates.
Some on the right are trying a very different strategy -- conservative activists acknowledge the law, but are urging conservative Christian pastors to break the law, deliberately.
On Sunday, October 7, pastors around the country will try to bait the federal government into investigating them by preaching explicitly partisan sermons. As part of a conservative movement organizers call "Pulpit Freedom Sunday," some religious leaders will endorse Mitt Romney from the pulpit. Others may refrain from an endorsement but vigorously criticize President Obama. And some will tell their congregations that a good Christian can only vote for a candidate who opposes gay marriage and abortion. Then they'll send tapes of their sermons to the Internal Revenue Service in the hopes of being audited.
Mike Huckabee and Glenn Beck have both used their media platforms recently to help promote the event.
There are a few angles to this. First, the organizers of "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" generally believe the IRS is bluffing and won't actually crack down on churches that intervene in elections. If the law isn't going to be enforced, the argument goes, then there's no reason conservative pastors shouldn't use their pulpits to help elect a Republican presidential candidate.
Second, if the IRS isn't bluffing and it cracks down on churches that knowingly flout the law, then there will be litigation the right thinks it can win. By forcing test cases, conservatives believe they can have the existing law overturned altogether.
And third, if the IRS takes any action at all, conservative churches will play the martyr card -- the big bad Obama administration is waging a "war on religion" by going after innocent churches.
For the record, the law is only limited to partisan campaigns -- religious leaders who want to use their pulpits to preach for or against marriage rights, abortion, the death penalty, or any other issues are free to do so. The trouble kicks in when pastors start telling their congregations who to vote for, and scrapping the law really isn't a good idea.
Also from the God Machine this week:
* The "Red Mass" was last week, an annual tradition in which several sitting Supreme Court justices -- in this instance, six of the nine -- attend a Roman Catholic mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington the Sunday before the Supreme Court begins its new term. The practice began in 1953.
* The Washington Post's Sally Quinn suggested in print this week that Americans' identity is intertwined with religiosity. Raising atheists' eyebrows, Quinn argued, "Part of claiming your citizenship is claiming a belief in God, even if you are not Christian."
* Radical TV preacher Pat Robertson and Family Research Council president Tony Perkins helped headline "The America for Jesus 2012" prayer rally at Independence Mall in Philadelphia last weekend.
* And speaking of Robertson, the televangelist told supporters this week that God may "take down the wall of protection around this nation" unless America starts agreeing with him on gay rights, reproductive freedom, and secular government.