Churches aren't supposed to endorse federal candidates, but it's easy to see from a recent political screed which way a Tempe Catholic church pastor wants his flock to vote.
Pastor John Bonavitacola, leader of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church in Tempe, doesn't refer to the candidates by name in his September 18 blog post, "Living is Easy With Eyes Closed," which is published on the church's website. He calls Donald Trump "The Ego," while Hillary Clinton is "Lady Macbeth."
In his weekly Father John's Letters blog, Bonavitacola seems to want readers to believe he's being neutral. But the diatribe is really a thinly-veiled promotion of Trump and simultaneous condemnation of Clinton.
Borrowing from a Simon and Garfunkel song, Bonavitacola says at the start of his article that "everyway I look at it we lose." Then he proceeds to make Trump look like a hero while painting Clinton as worse than a movie villain.
Bonavitacola didn't return a call, but it seems the name-changing and faux-neutrality is one way to get around the restriction on endorsing candidates that has been in place since the Johnson Amendment of 1954. The law prohibits churches and other tax-exempt groups from participating in political activity.
Bonavitacola starts off innocently enough, saying both candidates are "dangerous."
But as he explains, Trump is dangerous because he's going to hold both Republicans and Democrats to accountability:
"He's not part of the political aristocracy and he's pretty much viewed as an impolite wedding crasher," Bonavitacola writes. "Moreover he is not afraid to turn the tables on those who opposed him. If you're still wondering what really went on with the Fast and Furious Gun Selling, the IRS targeting conservative groups, Benghazi, etc., I'm sure he will gladly reveal all."
Sounds more like praise, right? It goes on like that for a few more sentences until he gets to the Lady Macbeth part, which strikes an entirely different tone.
Macbeth (Clinton) is dangerous for different reasons, he says: She has federal law-enforcement authorities in her pocket, and "that means no accountability." She'll "silence her critics" and retaliate against anyone who opposes her wishes, the priest warns.
For example, "dissent from her on the Second Amendment [and] expect federal agents at your door ..."
If readers are unclear that he expects Clinton to be only slightly less oppressive than Stalin, Bonavitacola spells it out for them: "Ming the Merciless will look like a pushover compared to Lady Macbeth," he says, referring to the now-politically-incorrect, Chinese-inspired villain of the Flash Gordon comic strip and movie serials. "If you like leftist dictatorships you'll love Lady Macbeth, comrade."
Katie Burke, a spokeswoman with the Catholic Diocese of Phoenix, said she'd call back with a possible comment about the priest's column. Her comments will be added as an update to this article if she calls.
Evan Clark, the leader of a local secular political group, says he's not sure if the column violates the Johnson Amendment, but "it's definitely questionable and concerning."
Clark's the founder and creative director of Spectrum Experience, a "humanist consulting group" that's working with several atheist and secular Arizona political candidates.
Clark calls the priest's screed an "unsophisticated endorsement" of Trump over Clinton.
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"The frustrating thing is he did it on the church site," Clark says. "Religious institutions need to respect the separation of church and state. It's upsetting to see it so blatantly challenged."
New Times received the priest's letter from an anonymous reader, along with a short note outlining some concerns.
Noting that Bonavitacola certainly has the right to speak his mind, the reader adds, "He even has the civil right to engage in hate speech. But surely this is an inappropriate message from a priest."