Politics and the Church

Bush woos the faithful with a religious fervor

Politicians and pastors can make strange bedfellows, but there’s something different about President Bush’s faith-based campaign to stay in the White House.

Just consider what went down in the first two weeks of June:

— Bush campaign staffers in Pennsylvania sent out e-mails to identify 1,600 congregations “where voters friendly to President Bush might gather on a regular basis.”

— Bush himself visited Pope John Paul II in Rome, where he reportedly complained to Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican secretary of state, that “not all the American bishops are with me.”

— Bush’s image was beamed via satellite onto the giant video screens of the Southern Baptist Convention in Indianapolis, where fundamentalist Christian delegates cheered the president’s vow to protect marriage as “the union of a man and a woman.”

— Twenty Republican members of the House of Representatives tried, unsuccessfully, to slip a “Safe Harbor for Churches” provision into a jobs bill that would have made it easier for churches to endorse political candidates and keep their tax exemption.

— Catholic bishops huddled at a private Colorado retreat to discuss whether Bush’s opponent, Sen. John Kerry, can support abortion rights and still receive Holy Communion.

Bush and God

If President Bush truly is a Christian – as he claims to be – the publishers of Apologetics Index, which includes Religion News Blog, call on him to also act like a Christian. In the context of this news blog, we call on him to
• stop ignoring America’s dismal human rights record
• stop his support for human rights violations (e.g. America’s use and promotion of the death penalty and America’s use of torture
• stop violating – and fighting against – international law,
• to stop supporting cults and extremist groups such as the Unification Church and the Scientology organization, and to
• stop claiming the alleged support of God as an excuse for furthering his own agenda

It’s all keeping the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, very busy.

“This is the most concentrated dose of religion and politics that I have ever seen,” Lynn said. “And it looks like it’s full steam ahead.”

Under Internal Revenue Service laws, churches and other religious organizations can lose their tax exempt status if they endorse political candidates.

Enforcement of that provision, however, is complicated by the fact that churches are free to speak out on political issues — such as whether the government should outlaw abortion or gay marriage. And clergy are able to speak out for candidates if they do it as private individuals, not as representatives of their church.

“What’s different this year is the Bush/Cheney campaign are initiating efforts to get churches to break the law by becoming centers of Bush campaign activity,” said Lynn, noting that the campaign has not repudiated the “friendly congregations” effort in Pennsylvania.

Dan Ronanye, a spokesman for the Bush/Cheney campaign, said there was nothing wrong with the e-mail campaign in Pennsylvania.

“It’s no secret that we are trying to organize educators, farmers, veterans and, yes, people of faith, into our coalition,” he said. “Those e- mails were sent to individuals, not churches.”

But Lynn is not the only one who sees potential problems with the aggressiveness of the Bush outreach and the response from some evangelical churches.

“There is more and more politicization of churches, a willingness to get right in the middle of the political battle,” said Larry Noble, the director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington, D.C., group that tracks money in politics.

Noble, who spent 13 years as the general counsel at the Federal Elections Commission, said another difference was the “top down” nature of the Bush effort to get churches behind his campaign.

Last week, for example, top leaders of the 16-million-member Southern Baptist Convention hosted a reception at their Indianapolis convention for Ralph Reed, a key Bush campaign strategist who once headed the Christian Coalition, a conservative evangelical lobbying group founded by Pat Robertson, the TV evangelist and former GOP presidential candidate.

Lynn, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, a liberal Protestant denomination, said he found Bush’s recent round of Vatican lobbying — first revealed by the National Catholic Reporter newspaper — particularly egregious.

That, Lynn said, was in sharp contrast with President John Kennedy, the last Roman Catholic to run for president on a major party ticket. Kennedy went out of his way to assure voters that the pope and U.S. bishops would not influence his policies.

“It’s incredible,” Lynn said. “Bush is doing the very thing Kennedy vowed not to do. … It has shocked many people, including many Catholics.”

Perhaps, but it has not shocked William Donohue, the president of the conservative Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights in Washington.

“What’s the big deal?” Donohue asked in an interview Friday. “So the president said, ‘Hey, I’m not getting help out of your boys (bishops) in California or New York.’ It’s mundane. It happens all the time.”

Donohue said “the outreach of the Bush people to Catholics and Protestants is extremely aggressive,” but said he saw no problem with that.

On the other hand, he said, “Kerry’s people don’t seem to know how to get to first base with people of faith.”

Donohue has just issued a press release blasting the Massachusetts senator for naming Mara Vanderslice as his campaign adviser on religious affairs.

Vanderslice, 29, has worked for several liberal Christian organizations, including Sojourners, a left-leaning evangelical magazine.

So far, most of the discussion about religion in the Kerry campaign has centered on the much-publicized comments of several Catholic bishops who have questioned the senator’s right to receive Communion because of his longtime support of legalized abortion.

Ed Gleason, a leader in the Northern California chapter of Voice of the Faith, an organization of mainstream Catholic lay people, said too much has been made out of that one issue.

“Wrestling at the Communion rail is foolish,” Gleason said. “There’s not just one issue. We are also against capital punishment and in support of nuclear disarmament. Killing a fetus is wrong, but so is killing innocent civilians in Iraq.”

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
San Francisco Chronicle, USA
June 21, 2004
Don Lattin, Chronicle Religion Writer

Religion News Blog posted this on Monday June 21, 2004.
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