Politicians take Virginia campaign to the pulpit
Vice President Kamala Harris endorses the Democratic gubernatorial candidate in a video made for churches
More than 300 black churches in Virginia have shown or plan to show a video of Vice President Kamala Harris voicing her support for Terry McAuliffe, the state’s Democratic candidate for governor, amid a hotly contested campaign there. The vice president’s video, which CNN first reported last week, is an unusually high-profile mixing of church and politics that could, at least in theory, threaten the churches’ tax-exempt nonprofit status.
In the video, Harris tells viewers she grew up singing at church and speaks of the importance of voting. She then touts McAuliffe’s previous record as governor. Harris stops short of explicitly telling viewers to cast ballots for McAuliffe, but she urges them to vote and says, “I believe that my friend Terry McAuliffe is the leader Virginia needs at this moment.”
Harris isn’t the only one campaigning at Virginia churches. Former Georgia state Rep. Stacey Abrams spoke at three Virginia churches on Sunday, and McAuliffe posted to Twitter a string of photos from his own church visits featuring him shaking pastors’ hands, speaking from behind pulpits or podiums, and praying with congregants. McAuliffe’s opponent in the race, Republican Glenn Youngkin, has also recruited churchgoing voters, boosting his campaign during an October service at Cornerstone Chapel in Leesburg, Va.
The 1954 Johnson Amendment approved prohibits certain nonprofits, including churches, from political campaigning. They can do some lobbying or encourage congregants to vote, but as tax-exempt organizations they may not endorse specific candidates.
Unless churches that show Harris’ video balance it with a video extolling Youngkin, they could place themselves at risk of an IRS investigation. The vice president’s office and McAuliffe’s campaign did not respond to questions about whether they were concerned about jeopardizing the churches’ tax-exempt status.
But attorney Rob Showers said the no-politics rule is sparsely enforced. “There’s a lot of gray areas in that rule, and the enforcement of that rule has not been historically strong,” he said. “Quite frankly, the IRS would say they just don't have the manpower.”
Regardless of legal consequences, it’s unusual for a vice president to campaign in church. Other prominent Democrats have also stumped for McAuliffe recently: First lady Jill Biden visited a rally in a Virginia park last Friday, and former President Barack Obama is scheduled to visit next week. The unexpectedly tight race is considered a bellwether for Democratic congressional candidates in the 2022 midterm elections, which could shift control of Congress.
The candidates in the race have tackled hot-button topics, with McAuliffe hammering Youngkin for opposing abortion and supporting former President Donald Trump and Youngkin criticizing McAuliffe’s statements about parental involvement in schools. (“I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” McAuliffe said during a debate in reference to parental complaints about sexually explicit content in school library books.)
Last Sunday, Abrams urged churches not to let the election pass without getting involved. She said churches couldn’t avoid politics and that voting was an act of faith.
Still, Showers noted that in the hundreds of churches and multiple denominations he has represented, the vast majority steer clear of political endorsements, worried they would distract from the gospel mission. In Virginia, churches will weigh which path to take during the next two Sundays—the last remaining before Election Day on Nov. 2.