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Where’s the IRS or the Federal Election Commission when you need them?

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Are you as troubled as I to see the evangelical “kingmakers” — Focus on the Family founder James Dobson; American Family Association President Donald Wildmon; Family Research Council President Tony Perkins; Southern Baptist blowhard Richard Land; Roman Catholic leader Deal Hudson; notorious “End Times” San Antonio televangelist John Hagee; Family Research Council’s Gary Bauer, etc. — anoint their own Republican presidential candidate last Saturday?

Besides the absurd misappropriation of the word “family” as a euphemism for evangelical Christian, what is going on here? (Do they really suppose they are the only Americans with families, or is it just that only their “family values” count?) The Jan. 14 gathering, although well-publicized, had no name. The official guest list was secret, if not the venue: The ranch of former judge and Southern Baptist leader Paul Pressler.

Evangelical attendees voted on who “their” candidate should be, after hearing “pitches” from all the Republican challengers except Jon Huntsman. “Their” candidate, to no one’s surprise, is Rick Santorum. “There was this unanimous agreement to replace Barack Obama. And the consensus that emerged here was that Santorum was the best to do that,” avowed leader Tony Perkins told the Dallas News. Voting connotes official binding action which in turn implies an official organization, in this case one that is shadowy and undisclosed. At least that vote was reported: 85 out of 114 chose Rick Santorum, a diehard Roman Catholic whose views nicely dovetail with today’s Christian fundamentalism by being unabashedly antigay, antiabortion, and pro-theocracy.

Let’s examine the legality of this gathering. Groups with 501(c)(3) status may not get involved in elections, except to hold voter drives. Even lobbying groups, those with (c)(4) status, may not give money to candidates, but may lobby on issues and may educate about candidate stances on those issues. Only Political Action Committees (PACs) may endorse or throw money to a candidate.

Tony Perkins heads the Family Research Council, which is a (c)(3), with not only its own handy political action arm, a (c)(4), but its very own PAC, with Connie Mackey, not Perkins, as its president. Pretty cozy. Perkins may follow the rules on paper. But we don’t even know who most of these other 150 religious leaders were, much less whether (c)(3) money may have paid for their trip, whether they dot every “i” and cross their tax-exempt “t’s.”

What we do know crosses the line is what was reported in The New York Times Monday, that “many of the religious leaders who met in Texas are planning to converge on South Carolina and bring in volunteers from out of state to help get out the vote on Mr. Santorum’s behalf. Some will join conference calls with local church leaders to explain that they threw their support to Mr. Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylania, because they believed he could beat Mr. Romney in the primaries and President Obama in November. The campaign said that local church leaders would ask their parishioners to work at phone banks and send out e-mails.”

Religious figures may personally support a particular candidate, but may not organize ministers, who work for tax-exempt (c)(3)s, to “throw support” to a presidential candidate or urge parishioners to work phone banks on behalf of a candidate. Ministers may not endorse from the pulpit (or otherwise use church machinery to support, or diss, a particular candidate). They certainly may not treat their congregations as a political machine to crank up every four years on behalf of the “anointed one.”

The fundamentalist coronation of Santorum may be a “last stand” (as in Custer’s) against the Mormon frontrunner. Perhaps the theocratic powerbrokers shouldn’t underestimate the Mormon Church’s own political machine. They don’t call their congregations “wards” for nothing.

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