The pulpit, politics and proverbial slaps on the wrist

October 20, 2021 12:02 am

Vice President Kamala Harris participates in an Instagram Live event on voting, Thursday, August 4, 2021, in her Ceremonial Office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

Stick out your hand, Terry McAuliffe. Let me give you a proverbial “slap on the wrist” for the fawning video that Vice President Kamala Harris provided your gubernatorial campaign. It will be shown in 300 predominantly Black churches across Virginia on the Sundays leading up to the Nov. 2 election. 

Virginians, you deserve a leader who has a vision of what is possible, and the experience to realize that vision,” Harris says in the 2-minute-plus clip. “Terry McAuliffe is that leader.” 

Not exactly roof-raising, but OK. Former President Barack Obama and Stacey Abrams of Georgia are among the Democratic Party luminaries who will or have come to Virginia to get their guy across the finish line in this closer-than-expected contest. 

Airing the Harris video by the faith congregations, though, may be a violation of the IRS law banning churches that are 501(c)(3) organizations from participating in political campaigns. You’re encouraging them to be criminals, former (and would-be) Gov. McAuliffe! 

By the way, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, last week touted the Biden administration’s support for you, too. That’s an apparent no-no under the Hatch Act, which prohibits most executive branch members from taking part in such campaigns. (Psaki said the next day she and Joe Biden take ethics “seriously” and that she would be more careful with her word choice, because “words certainly matter.”)

That’s not your fault, Terry, but I’m sure you’re not minimizing the love from a president who’s a Democrat —  like yourself. Two slaps, maybe?

I’m being facetious, of course. 

Federal statutes and rules involving politicking should be followed. Yet, when such law-breaking occurs continuously and without penalty, everyone knows there’s little risk of getting in trouble. 

One other thing: The fact Republicans and conservative commentators are pointing out the reputed misdeeds involving McAuliffe is especially galling. They’ve had no shortage of violations themselves, especially during the recently deposed administration of Donald Trump. The group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington says the Trump White House routinely ignored the Hatch Act.

News articles say the feds have rarely revoked a church’s tax-exempt status. Maybe officials are squeamish about going after one faith community and not targeting another, or being accused of allowing one candidate religious support – but then cracking down on her opponent. 

“More lately,” the Tampa Bay (Fla.) Times reported in early 2020, “the IRS has remained silent even as religious leaders on both sides of the spectrum have increasingy waded into political debates.”

The Virginian-Pilot reported in 2018, for example, that dozens of churches here in the commonwealth have been donating cash to campaigns for years “and often to liberal Democrats, according to an analysis of campaign reports compiled by the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project.”

 This means the actual risk to these churches, synagogues, mosques and others is practically zero. 

Which brings me to the hypocrisy involving some GOP apparatchiks. 

Exhibit No. 1 is Kayleigh McEnany, one of several White House press secretaries under Trump. “Why does the media not hold @PressSec accountable for potential Hatch Act violations?” she tweeted about Psaki. “She has twice advocated for political candidates from the podium.”

McEnany clearly forgot about speaking in support of her former boss during his failed re-election campaign and urging an investigation into the “Joe Biden-Hunter Biden situation” while on the White House grounds in her role as press secretary. Twitter users called out McEnany for her apparent amnesia regarding her purported Hatch Act violations.

It was hard for me to keep up with all of Trump’s lies, accusations and breaking of norms during his single term. The Washington Post even had a team of journalists documenting his tens of thousands of falsehoods

So I simply forgot this nugget during his 2020 re-election bid: Legal experts said he shouldn’t have campaigned at a megachurch near Miami early last year. About 7,000 supporters attended the event at King Jesus International Ministry. 

In fact, Democrats are likely sick and tired of playing by the rules while Republicans laugh in their faces and do whatever they want – norms, laws and fairness be damned:  

Then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell denied Merrick Garland even a chance at a hearing for a Supreme Court opening, even though Obama nominated Garland nearly eight months before the 2016 election. In 2020, under Trump, McConnell rammed through the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett just weeks before the election.

GOP members of Congress — at the behest of their overlord, Trump — politicized what previously had been a pro forma certification of electoral votes after the 2020 election. Trump’s exhortation of a mob of supporters led to the assault on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, but Republicans abetted the attack by their nonsensical objections during the certification process that day. 

And so on.

McAuliffe must be desperate to win next month if he has to enlist Vice President Harris. Though an overwhelming majority of African-Americans usually vote for Democrats, I’d bet most folks would be uncomfortable sitting in the pews while hearing her video pitch – if not outright angry if they supported his opponent.

A McAuliffe campaign spokesperson declined to answer my question, by email, about the accusations that airing the video could jeopardize the churches’ tax-exempt status. 

But let’s get real. The kerfuffle over the video doesn’t equate with Republicans’ repeated bad faith and hypocritical actions involving laws and procedures.

It’s not even close.

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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]