An American Christian Chapter V — Voting
I turned 18 in 2002. It was two years into George W. Bush’s first term, and I heard nothing but praise about his leadership and godly principles. When he was up for re-election in 2004, I had just started my third year in GTC.
My memory is hazy during this period from over a decade of repression. Therapy and transcendental meditation have helped heal my mind and even brought a lot of trauma forward for me to process, but I can’t recall this particular instance.
According to several alumni that I’ve been in contact with, that year, the GTC leadership, headed up by Pastor Ben, decided that the entire team needed to participate in American democracy. While this in and of itself isn’t bad, how they handled it was not only a gross miscarriage of authority but illegal.
I wrote briefly in Chapter I about how Evangelical churches and leaders frequently defy IRS guidelines for discussing political candidates and campaigning. This behavior isn’t new by any means, but it certainly doesn’t excuse it.
I don’t recall being in the room when all this happened, but I was in my third year, so I was probably off working on an out of class project. That being said, here is the story that was relayed to me and confirmed by several others:
I will never forget the first year I was allowed to vote. I remember being excited to vote, not because I was educated or cared about politics, but because I thought it was proof I was an independent adult. It was 2004, and John Kerry was running against George Bush. I was 18 years old and had just graduated high school and joined Generation Training Center. Voting while in GTC was a different experience, to say the least. An experience I didn’t realize was wrong until much later.
Pastor Ben was really into politics and would dedicate weeks of Sunday morning services to talking about politics and the election. He led a special class time about the election for all the students and interns in GTC, detailing all the reasons everyone should vote Republican. On this particular day, we were instructed to bring our ballots to class. They provided voter registration cards for those of us who weren’t yet registered to vote.
I remember it like it happened yesterday.
We sat with our ballots open and filled them out according to Pastor Ben’s “recommendations.” There was no privacy. Members of the leadership team hovered to make sure we were following instructions. They did that a lot. To make matters worse, when it was all over, I remember standing up, pushing in my chair like the good little student I was, and handing in my ballot to leadership after the class time. I remember thinking it was weird, and it didn’t feel right, but I also knew it was not allowed to defy authority or ask questions, so I went along with it.
According to IRS tax codes regarding 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations, explicitly telling people who or what they should vote for constitutes campaign intervention.
An example given by clergytaxnet.com states:
Minister D is the minister of Church M, a section 501(c)(3) organization. During regular services of Church M shortly before the election, Minister D preached on a number of issues, including the importance of voting in the upcoming election, and concluded by stating, “It is important that you all do your duty in the election and vote for Candidate W .” Because Minister D’s remarks indicating support for Candidate W were made during an official church service, they constitute political campaign intervention by Church M.
Whether a GTC class could be considered a service of a 501(c)(3) organization isn’t the issue. What Ben and the leadership did was, at minimum, a gross abuse of power and straightforward voter intimidation. It’s pure manipulation.
Churches and religious leaders continue to get away with this sort of manipulation simply because they say it all in the name of God. This politician is godly. This law is persecuting Christians. We have to stand up for what is right. This is a Christian nation.
It’s a lie. All of it. It’s just that some of them believe the lie as well.
You can’t say you are pro-life and then ask your church to phone bank against a hate crimes bill. You can’t say you care for the sick and poor and be against socialized healthcare. You can’t pretend to love people while the trans community is murdered after being rejected by your church.
You are not pro-life; you are anti-choice. You are a bigot. You are a liar. You are a hypocrite.
Ben stood at his pulpit and stood in that GTC classroom and manipulated young minds to support his political leanings.
But this series isn’t about the Joneses; it never was. They’re characters in a much larger story. They’re stand-ins for abusive leadership that thrive in the Evangelical church as a whole. They are a part of my story and that of my colleagues.
And my story is a reflection of American Christianity.
Pastor Ben watching people fill out ballots could also be Pastor Mike. Father Flannigan. Mother Tia. Bishop Aaron. This is not an isolated incident. If it happened to us, then it’s happened to others. It’s happened for decades, and it’s happening now.
As of this writing, another US election is unfolding. We are on the cusp of finding out whether or not there are enough people who have turned away from the disgusting rhetoric of the Evangelical foothold on US politics or if we will have to endure more of it.
Voting in any election is your constitutional right. No one from any organization should ever have as much influence on your voting decisions as some Evangelical leaders have on their congregations. It’s one thing to share an opinion in an open and safe environment; it’s a whole other beast when it’s done from a pulpit fueled by religious guilt and disinformation.
When I moved away from Washington state to Oklahoma, I had accepted a job working for the sister church of the one I grew up in. Noah had attended Master’s Commission at that church and was now an employee there as well. Hence, my hiring.
I’ll discuss this church further in another post, but I want to share one last story.
During the 2008 Election, the Pastor of this church, Larry*, my new boss, did a sermon series where he weighed the pros and cons between Barack Obama and John McCain. Pros and Cons from a “Christian perspective.” This mainly involved him relaying skewed information in a neutral tone that he gleaned from Fox News to help us politically ignorant congregants make an informed (biased) decision. Of course, “Obama might very well be the Anti-Christ,” but he wasn’t trying to sway our opinion.
His tone-deaf adherence to republican politics simply because they were republican and his absolute conspiracy-ridden disdain for Obama was so malevolent, it caused some very wonderful people to leave the church. I don’t blame them at all.
Politics in the church should be oil and water; instead, we have a poisonous, toxic sludge.