This past Sunday, in a coordinated effort to flout a federal law banning political endorsements from the pulpit, 33 evangelical and fundamentalist pastors in 22 states used their sermons either to endorse John McCain or to attack Barack Obama. Organized by the Alliance Defense Fund, the campaign of law-breaking was designed to test the IRS’ willingness to enforce – and, they hope, to overturn in the courts – a 1954 amendment to the tax code that prohibits churches from “participat[ing] in, or interven[ing] in … any political campaign on behalf of any candidate for public office.”

Sunday’s efforts were only the most blatant in a long series of conservative-Christian efforts to undermine the Constitution’s separation of church and state. For 30 years now, Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition, and similar groups have been encouraging pastors to push the envelope of partisan politics, and have been blanketing churches with “voter guides” designed to go right to the edge of illegality without crossing the line.

Such activities were dealt a major setback in 1998, when the Christian Coalition lost its tax-exempt status and subsequently lost much of its influence. However, apart from that the one moment of Clintonian ballsiness, the federal government – dominated over the last three decades by Reaganites, Bushies and the occasional Democrat too fearful of offending churchgoers – has generally looked the other way as thousands of churches have abused their tax-exempt status and violated bedrock principles established by the Founding Fathers.

The traditional bargain between the government and the nation’s churches is simple enough for Sarah Palin to understand: In exchange for the beneficent granting of tax-exempt status that saves each congregation many thousands of dollars a year (or even millions, depending on how mega the church is), the religious community must avoid directly advocating the election or defeat of individual candidates on Sunday morning. That’s not to say that pastors can’t advocate the tenets of their morality in pointed ways during election season – they have an enormous amount of freedom to rail against abortion or gay marriage or (ahem) witchcraft all they like. (By the way, pastors also have the freedom – usually in completely different churches – to rail against hatred or bigotry or war or narrow-mindedness, or imposing one’s supposedly “moral” beliefs on the rest of the citizenry.)

But, of course, abiding by the law is no longer enough for religious conservatives in this country. They want to have their tax breaks and legislate their morality, too, and they’ll stop at nothing to make sure their sheep stay in the flock on Election Day. (The hypocrisy in flaunting their supposed “morals” while wantonly breaking the law is, not surprisingly, lost on these folks.)

The Alliance Defense Fund and its cadre of outlaw preachers no doubt approached their day of criminality with confidence, knowing that the federal government as currently constituted would be likely to ignore or even condone their actions. As wingnut churches have become more and more brazen since 1978, the IRS has done little more than pay lip service to policing political expression in the pulpit. Indeed, only one church has ever lost its tax-exempt status for excessive campaigning – after a pastor in New York state vehemently trashed Bill Clinton in 1992. And in recent years the only congregation seriously pursued by the IRS was the liberal All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, CA, which hosted an anti-Iraq War sermon during the runup to the 2004 election.

Even if the IRS does try to crack down on the 33 churches involved in Sunday’s organized crime, the federal courts these days are so well-stocked with conservative ideologues that the code’s survival is in question. If it is in fact overturned, conservative Christians will notch one more victory in their continuing efforts to restore the United States to the second-world status it escaped sometime after the Civil War – efforts that include the undermining of scientific inquiry, the advocacy of creationism, the promotion of censorship and the denial of global warming.

If that last sentence sounds like a summation of Sarah Palin’s political platform, that’s because it was intended to do so. I’ll have much more to say on that and other subjects as Thursday’s vice presidential debate approaches.

For now, though, let’s leave it at this: The churches that participated in Sunday’s illegality should become a cautionary tale, not just for church-state separation but for the consequences of flouting American tax laws during the current economic crisis. The government should come down hard on any church, liberal or conservative, that can’t keep its pious pronouncements out of American politics – stripping such congregations of their tax-exempt status and forcing them to morph into full-fledged political organizations. Churchgoers who desire a dose of partisanship with their weekly sermons should be ready to toss an extra Twenty into the collection plate each Sunday to help their preacher/political surrogates pay the taxman.