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Who is Behind the Renewal Project?

No matter what party you belong to, no matter what your religious beliefs are, it should bother you when a group of nameless, faceless, moneyed benefactors organize and fund an effort to influence elections by giving pastors in key states a free Marriott weekend seminar. You should especially worry when that free weekend seminar has Newt Gingrich as the keynote speaker and a single Republican candidate, Mike Huckabee,  as a guest speaker.

Yet this is what took place in Iowa and other key states, and is continuing through the primary season. This article from my local paper yesterday sent my blood pressure up more than a few points. Here are some of the highlights:

The Rev. Rob McCoy wants the nation’s 55 million or more evangelical Christians to vote for godly representation in the White House, and he’s not afraid to say it from the pulpit, over coffee at Starbucks or at a series of revivals in states on the primary trail.

About those revivals:

Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister and former Arkansas governor, has spoken at several of the Renewal Project events and is the only candidate to do so, even though other Republicans have been invited. McCoy said the project, run by a group of leaders who remain anonymous, isn’t about endorsing someone but exhorting Christians to bring their faith and biblical teachings to the polls. [My emphasis added]

If you Google the term “Renewal Project”, the first result will be a Northern California nonprofit organization dedicated to helping build up churches. I wrote to Doug Stevens, head of The Renewal Project and asked him if he was involved at all in sponsoring these seminars. After reading his weblog, I was certain he wasn’t, but wanted to find out directly from him rather than making a mistake. He was kind enough to respond to me this morning with an emphatic “NO”. Don’t confuse his organization with the national Renewal Project — there is no association, affiliation, or other relationship.

The Renewal Project as it relates to this national effort to lobby pastors, appears to be organized state-by-state for the purpose of undertaking urban renewal projects. Skipping down the Google results past Doug Stevens’ organization, I discovered many different sites for Project Renewal from state to state. This seems odd to me. Generally in a nonprofit structure which is organized this way, there is an umbrella site that lists affiliates by state. Not in this case. In addition to these urban renewal sites, I found this site, promoting a movie about interfaith efforts to preserve the environment, which doesn’t appear to be engaged in electioneering, either.  The California Renewal Project meeting with pastors has a press release here.

Here’s what the Star article had to say about Project Renewal:

McCoy became involved in the [sic]Renewal Project about 18 months ago at the invitation of a group leader and now speaks at the events along with Christian historians, pastors and former government leaders, including Newt Gingrich, former House speaker and author of “Rediscovering God in America.”

Evangelical pastors and their wives are invited to the two-day events, which are closed to the media. The project is funded by anonymous donors.

McCoy said the focus stays on biblical teachings, abortion, marriage and other issues defined as moral absolutes.

“What we do is spiritual. The by-product is political,” he said, noting seminars are scheduled this month in San Jose, Louisiana, Orlando, South Carolina and San Diego.

Of course, we have no idea whether the focus stays on teaching and issues, because it’s closed to the media and funded by anonymous donors.

Let’s be clear: Mike Huckabee has the backing of this organization, along with the LaHaye organization and other very conservative right-wing political machines paving his way through key primary states. He will be writing many thank-you notes tonight to the pastors of Iowa who delivered their congregations to the caucus sites tonight, and we should be concerned, no matter what our politics or religion, because this is the prevailing attitude:

McCoy uses larger estimates. He said he believes there are about 63 million evangelicals in the nation, including about 26 million who vote.

“If we have a 5 percent increase in voter turnout, we’d dominate,” he said.

Some polls have suggested that religion plays a bigger role in states like Iowa than in New Hampshire. McCoy doesn’t question the point but asserts the influence will grow everywhere, including California.

“You’re going to watch the surge,” he said.

“I’m not saying we’re going to take the state, but we’ll wake people up.”

I still don’t know who the Renewal Project is.  If it is the loose coalition of urban renewal sites with ties to the LaHaye and Dobson organizations, it would seem to me to be violating non-profit rules by using funds for the purpose of promoting political ideologies (if not candidates) instead of rebuilding urban areas.  The use of tax-exempt funds for this purpose gives an unfair advantage to Huckabee over other candidates and to me, at least, is intolerable. 

It’s not just the free Marriott weekends that have me in a twist.   What these pastors are exhorted to do is go back to their congregations and urge them, without actually endorsing a candidate, to vote according to the teaching of that pastor from that pulpit. As a Christian, I object to this because it distracts the church from its purpose, which is to help people in need and to be a loving presence in the community. This idea of being the moral guardian of all truth and light is just wrong, and it’s more wrong when the church becomes a voice in the secular voting process.

In an earlier post, I shared my frustration and anger at having a petition that I absolutely didn’t agree with sitting on a table inside a church.  To me, the idea of secretly funding luxury weekends for pastors is even more egregious, and if people don’t wake up and start learning about candidates instead of following those pastors like sheep we’re going to hand this country over to someone in deep debt to zealots and secret organizations.   There’s a reason for election funding rules.  There’s a reason to keep churches and other tax-exempt organizations focused on their purpose and mission instead of playing politics with that tax-exempt money.  The whole purpose of exempting churches from taxes is in deference to their constitutional right to exist without governmental intervention.  If the government cannot intervene in their operation, they should not intervene in government.  I’m not just arguing the separation of church and state here — I’m arguing that the purpose of a church is NOT to elect a candidate, set a political agenda, or electioneer.

I was amazed by this blog post by Claire Brinberg on CNN.com.  This sums up EXACTLY why churches, as an institution, should stay away from the political process:

On New Year’s Eve, I was welcomed at a lovely church celebration at Grace Church in West Des Moines. I got into a conversation with Marylys Foster, a Huckabee supporter who told me she was going to caucus for “the guy who’s with Christ. I believe that somebody that believes in Christ is truthful.”

I asked Ms. Foster which issues she was most concerned with this year, and she launched into an incredibly detailed and well-informed discussion of healthcare and immigration.

“So,” I asked her, “Do you know where Huckabee, your candidate, stands on those issues?

“No,” she replied.That’s just amazing to me. She’s well-versed on the issues, and yet is supporting a candidate whose positions she doesn’t know, ’cause she’s convinced that as a man of God, Mike Huckabee will make the right decision. She trusts him.

This is how Huckabee won tonight. Is it a reasonable, valid way to nominate a candidate, elect a President?  (note to Ms Foster: Before she claims that anyone who believes in Christ is truthful, she should weigh the truthfulness of several recent high-profile falls from grace, including Ted Haggard and Mark Foley.)

Which brings me back to the original question I asked: Who are the shadowy figures behind the national effort to lobby pastors, aka “The Renewal Project”? I don’t have answers, just a lot of questions. Here are some things to ponder:

  • In 2000, Congress passed the American Community Renewal Act, allowing for tax incentives communities designated as “renewal communities”. You might be more familiar with the term “Empowerment Zone”, which is also part of the law, giving business incentives for opening, expanding, and hiring local residents.
  • Part of the American Community Renewal Act gives “community & faith-based non-profit organizations the opportunity to purchase HudHomes, at discounts up to 30 percent, under the Direct Sales Program.” (link)
  • The California Renewal Summit site (organizer of the California pastors’ summit) has this under their “Making a Difference statement”: “Organized in 2000, the Community Renewal Project increased its presence through California’s diverse communities by hosting conferences that bring faith, community, business and elected leaders together to enhance their efforts to strengthen their communities.
  • Monetary awards for faith-based initiatives in 2007 totaled over $57 million dollars

Is it mere coincidence that these organizations, ostensibly founded around revitalizing floundering communities, are being used to organize grass-roots political efforts? Is the American Community Renewal Act really a backdoor to government-sponsored political activism?

Why should anyone trust this murky web of non-profit funding when they intentionally hide behind a dark, anonymous mask? To me, the only reason to remain anonymous is to shield oneself from the consequence of exposure, particularly when putting forth a faith-based agenda and backing a faith-based candidate. If I were to use a quote from the Bible to drive this point home, it would be this one from Ephesians 5: “Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them.

Upcoming Renewal Project Events: Florida (January 21-22)

(image: Marc Ambinder)

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