Clergy Appealing to a Lower Authority

Posted December 18, 2009 at 6:17pm

Although an unapologetic Democrat, the Rev. Rick Friebel has shied away from politics in recent decades. But that all apparently changed nearly three years ago, when the Roman Catholic priest cut a $2,300 check to then-Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-Ill.) surging presidential campaign, the first political contribution of Friebel’s 31-year career.

“That’s the only time I’ve ever given,— says the pastor of Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Dayton, Ohio.

Friebel appears hardly alone among his ecclesiastical colleagues in wading into the political fundraising waters for the first time during the last election. Political contributions by ministers, rabbis, nuns, monks and other religious leaders have surged in the past three years, according to an analysis of CQ MoneyLine’s federal campaign finance records.

To be sure, the overall amount raised from members of the clergy nationally is meager when compared with donors from more lucrative professions such as finance or the law. Still, campaign records show that nearly 40 percent of all religious leaders’ contributions during the past three decades came in after Dec. 31, 2006, just as the last presidential nominating process began hitting its stride.

There’s a rich tradition of bold-faced religious figures entering the political fray, from presidential advisers such as evangelist Billy Graham to his more politically inclined contemporary Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority and Liberty University. Members of religious orders have also walked the halls of Congress as Members, including the late Reps. Robert Drinan (D-Mass.) and Robert Cornell (D-Wis.), who were both Catholic priests. Pope John Paul II forbade priests from holding public office in 1980.

Since January 2007, at least 3,800 members of the clergy have ponied up $2.3 million to political action committees, presidential candidates and House campaigns. While an earthly sum compared with today’s usual eight-figure Senate contests, the recent total is a marked difference in giving patterns by the same demographic bloc going back to the last year of President Jimmy Carter’s administration.

By comparison, the same demographic from 1979 to 2006 wrote checks to federal campaigns totaling $3.7 million.

Like other previously untapped fundraising sources, Obama’s small-dollar juggernaut last cycle also successfully passed its online collection plate among the country’s clerical class, raising $691,000 — or more than 10 percent of the past 30 years’ total — from ordained ministers, rabbis and other members of the clergy. In the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama also outraised GOP nominee Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) by more than 5-to-1 among religious leaders.

McCain adviser and Republican lobbyist Charlie Black said the campaign actively courted religious leaders. But just as it had trouble with other powerful voting groups, the McCain campaign came up short in persuading them to either turn out on Election Day or contribute out of their own pockets.

“You could look at just about any demographic and say we were disappointed,— Black says.

Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), an ordained Baptist minister, credits Obama’s presidential fundraising strategy for identifying the diverse patchwork of influential church leaders in cities and states throughout the country. Rush, the nine-term lawmaker and former Black Panther leader, is the only person ever to defeat Obama in a political campaign.

“I’m not surprised,— Rush says of Roll Call’s findings, adding that “Obama used a nontraditional approach and redefined fundraising in American politics. And McCain was from the old school. He was like a mule running up against a Kentucky Derby racehorse.—

Rush also staunchly defended the clergy’s right to make contributions to candidates and other political causes.

Political Piety

As the Catholic Church’s recent high-profile lobbying push in the health care debate shows, the mingling of politics and religion can stir deep emotions — and not all of them positive. Following last month’s House vote on health care reform, liberal Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) made headlines for saying the Internal Revenue Service should scrutinize the Catholic Church for its aggressive push for an anti-abortion amendment that was ultimately included in the legislation.

Because of their involvement in the community, Rush says, many ministers are uniquely qualified to make astute political decisions.

“A lot of our clergy are probably better informed about supporting candidates,— Rush says. “They make more value-driven choices, as opposed to being influenced by the more superficial aspects of the election process.—

While other religious officials agree that the clergy have a constitutional right to participate in the political process, they suggest that the recent uptick in giving is not an altogether positive trend. There’s not always a bright line between a minister, his or her congregation and the organization itself, some say, and blurring the boundaries may create headaches.

“Clearly the clergy, like other citizens acting as individuals, are free to participate in the political process, giving money or time or being involved in other ways. That’s fine,— says Galen Carey, the government affairs director of the National Association for Evangelicals. “It is somewhat unhealthy if pastors become clearly partisan on one side or another.—

‘Moral Legitimacy’

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, says politicians traditionally have not seen the clergy — some of whom take vows of poverty — as a source of political contributions. Rather, politicians typically have viewed religious leaders as a conduit to voters, who look to their pastors to provide “moral legitimacy— to candidates. But that one-dimensional role may have changed during the last presidential election, Saperstein says, as seen in the proliferation of groups like “Rabbis for Obama,— which formed to lend direct support to the Democratic nominee.

“This is the first time I can remember this happening,— he says.

According to public records, rabbis donated at least $100,000 to Obama’s presidential campaign in the last presidential election.

Uptick or not, Saperstein speculates that the majority of the nation’s clergy will remain on the fundraising sidelines in the future. Many ministers and rabbis, he says, fear endangering their church’s tax status and angering their congregations or their superiors.

“I think most clergy are a little more hesitant than most [people]. They become scared that people may read into it … that it’s in someway beyond themselves,— he says. “That makes them reticent to endorse publicly, [and] if they give privately and people find out, they may think it’s something more than just me.—

Friebel says he’s not worried about his boss, Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk, finding out about his political leanings, even though he contributed to a president who supports abortion rights, which the Catholic Church oppose.

Rep. Patrick Kennedy’s (D-R.I.) local bishop has prohibited him from receiving communion because of his stance on abortion rights, the lawmaker told Rhode Island’s Providence Journal last month.

“My bishop has not directed me one way or another,— Friebel says. “That’s different from a minority of bishops within the country who are very vocal about how one should vote.—