Democrats are getting rattled in Virginia. With less two weeks to go until the gubernatorial election on Nov. 2, former governor and Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe is trying to fire up apathetic voters. In addition to visits from high-profile figures including former President Barack Obama, McAuliffe is deploying a video message by Vice President Kamala Harris to be shown in hundreds of Black churches.
Campaign messages aimed at religious voters are nothing new. What's striking about this one is that it includes an explicit encouragement to vote for a specific candidate. That's arguably a violation of statutes banning tax-exempt charities and churches from participating in electoral politics.
It's also evidence of a double standard. When Republicans appeal to religious voters or coordinate with churches and other religious groups, they're accused of "Christian nationalism" or promoting theocracy. In his newsletter, Michael Wear, who served as religion adviser to the 2012 Obama campaign, notes that former Vice President Mike Pence, then the GOP's vice presidential nominee, recorded a get-out-the-vote video shown in evangelical churches shortly before the 2016 election. It was covered as a desperate and cynical bid for power.
But Democrats have a long history of doing the same thing and having it received as a neutral campaign strategy or even a laudable attempt to boost voter turnout. In addition to "souls to the polls" efforts that extend back decades, Democratic presidents have mobilized liberal clergy in support of their policies. In 2009, Obama himself conducted a conference call with 1,000 rabbis. The goal was to encourage them to promote the Affordable Care Act among their congregants.
There are plausible reasons to object to such efforts. The most important is that they tend to conflate partisanship or specific policy preferences with what religious believers consider their highest obligations. It's only fair to apply the same standard no matter the party or candidate.
Or we could recognize that religious institutions are the main setting for civic engagement in some communities. As Democrats have historically recognized where the Black church is concerned, excluding them from electoral politics means leaving too many voters outside the process. This may be true of other religious groups, too. Rather than criticizing Harris and McAullife, then, we might call on them to support repeal of the Johnson Amendment — the little-enforced 1954 law that restricted churches' campaign activities. Whether churches engage in partisan politics is their business, not the government's.