Things words can do (II of III)

The Saddelbackers stuff ought to look and sound familiar to you in its form and content: It’s a formulaic style of political stumping that the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition perfected ages ago. The language is carefully crafted in a way that complies with the letter of the federal law prohibiting non-profit organizations from engaging in partisan political activity, while at the same time tromping all over the spirit of the statute (by receiving tax exemption, these organization benefit from the support of all Americans of whatever political or ideological stripe, so the law rightly says these groups should refrain from using that neutral support to further the election of a decidedly non-neutral politician or political cause). The trick here is to make statements of fact (distinguished from assertions of pure political opinion) in a politically loaded language that stays on the safe side of the law but sends a crystal clear message about the way the writer wants you to vote. So you get sentences like this:

Supreme Court Justices serve for life, and they are the ones who decide on issues like abortion, gay marriages, human cloning, harvesting babies for stem-cell research, revoking the tax exemption of churches, removing “under God” from the flag pledge, and “in God we trust” from our money.

Hmmm … wonder whom Pastor Rick and Fowler think I ought to vote for? If only there were some way for Pastor Rick and Scott to give me some signal about their own opinion and recommendation. It’s just so hard to tell. … Seriously though, if you tried to take Pastor Rick and his Saddlebackers to court for violating the law, they’d claim that they were simply increasing voter awareness of the issues and informing readers about what kinds of cases come before the Supreme Court. And they’d win, because the law tends to tolerate being stretched and bent rather than breaking under too rigid and inflexible an interpretation (a model of operation that hard-core conservatives expect to receive the benefit from, but not a way of thinking or acting that they themselves have any interest in extending to others). But I defy anyone to read or write that sentence and think it was anything other than a fiercely partisan act of political persuasion. As political strategy goes, it’s a brilliant move: a church like the Saddlebackers’ can create and mail this kinda thing out to thousands (or, if it wanted, millions) of people using various kinds of federal tax subsidies, so with propaganda carefully worded enough, whole groups of churches and entire denominations can become instantly organized, federally supported networks of campaign support for a particular party or issue. Churches, like all others, are non-profit after all. And of course a church like Pastor Rick’s would never take advantage of the legal deference shown to them by the very judicial system Pastor Rick and his church are implicitly and unmistakably encouraging us to help stack full of partisan, right-wing fundamentalist ideologues - the kind of ideologues who have already set about dismantling the very liberties and rights that let the Saddlebackers express their political, social, and moral views freely. Pretty neat trick, huh?

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