First up from the God Machine this week is a look at formerly apolitical preachers who are, at levels unseen in a long while, mobilizing their congregations for the 2012 election cycle.

[Iowa pastor Mike Demastus] is part of a growing movement of evangelical pastors who are jumping into the electoral fray as never before, preaching political engagement from the pulpit as they mobilize for the 2012 election.

This new activism has substantial muscle behind it: a cadre of experienced Christian organizers and some of the conservative movement’s most generous donors, who are setting up technologically sophisticated operations to reach pastors and their congregations in battleground states.

The passion for politics stems from a collision of historic forces, including heightened local organizing around the issues of abortion and gay marriage and a view of the country’s debt as a moral crisis that violates biblical instruction. Another major factor: Both Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Bachmann, contenders for the GOP nomination, are openly appealing to evangelical Christian voters as they blast President Obama’s leadership.

Both Republican and Democratic strategists say that pastors have already helped unleash an army of voters to shape the GOP primary contests in Iowa and South Carolina, two states with large numbers of conservative Christians. They are making plans to do the same in states that are even more important to next year’s general election. Those include Ohio, Florida, Iowa, Virginia and Colorado, where evangelical voters make up about a quarter of the electorate and their participation could greatly aid Republicans.

Richard Land, president of the conservative Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, called it the “congregational version of the ‘tea party.’”

The religious right, as a political movement, has clearly fallen on hard times as powerhouse groups and leaders, prominent in the ’80s and ’90s, have faded from public view. But the concept of organizing churches into a political machine hasn’t gone away at all, and with technological advances and a reinvigorated right-wing base gearing up for 2012, this is an initiative that can make a difference, both in Republican nominating contests and the general election.

The one thing to keep an eye on, though, is federal tax law — tax-exempt institutions, including churches, are legally prohibited from intervening in political campaigns, either in support of or opposition to candidates and parties. If pastors are organizing voter-registration drives, they’re well within the law. If they’re organizing “Rick Perry for President” efforts, the IRS may be stopping by for a visit.

Also from the God Machine this week:

* House Republicans, earlier this year, used public funds to send “five staff members to a training seminar run by a conservative Christian group in Indiana that is leading the charge in the state for an amendment to ban gay marriage.” That seems problematic, to say the least.

* Radical TV preacher Pat Robertson caused quite a stir this week, telling a man he should divorce his Alzheimer’s stricken wife “and start all over again.”

* This week, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals began hearing arguments in a case challenging the constitutionality of Oklahoma’s ban on Shariah law. One judge asked why the law was crafted to apply explicitly to just one religion. The state didn’t have a good answer.

* France this week began enforcing a ban on praying on public streets. The move appears to be intended to restrict France’s growing Muslim population.

* And pseudo-historian David Barton, a religious right favorite, claimed this week that historians accused Thomas Jefferson of having an affair with Sally Hemings as part of a liberal conspiracy to make Bill Clinton look better. Barton made the claims at Liberty University, an evangelical school founded by the late Jerry Falwell.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.