Summer 2004, Vol. 7, No. 2

Table of Contents
Summer 2004

Quick Links:
Other articles
in this issue

From the Editor:
Shocked, Shocked

Kerry Eucharistes

Tying the Knot in the Bay State

Black Pastors Bridle at Gay Marriage

A Thorn in the Mainline's Side

Still Under God

Kabbalah for Dummies

Breaking Boston's Heart



From the Editor:  
Shocked, Shocked
by Mark Silk

In the run-up to this year’s general election campaign, a trio of small scoops exposed the current state of faith-based politicking by the GOP. And in each case, there was the same bit of man-bites-dog in the reaction.

First, on June 2, the AP’s Lara Jakes Jordan disclosed the existence of an e-mail from the Bush campaign’s Pennsylvania office that sought coordinators to help organize 1,600 “friendly congregations” where Bush supporters could “meet regularly to sign up voters and spread the Bush word.” In his own story the following day, the man on the New York Times’ new “conservatives” beat, David D. Kirkpatrick, reported that the search was part of a wider effort to line up congregations nationwide.

Both articles pointed out the potential danger to the churches’ tax exemptions, quoted a spokesman for the Bush campaign defending the organizing effort, and went to the usual suspect, Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, for an outraged sound bite.

But Kirkpatrick also elicited criticism from a seemingly unlikely source: Richard Land, the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Were he a pastor, Land said, he would “not be comfortable” with a parishioner distributing campaign information within a church or at a church service.”

Kirkpatrick himself broke the second story on June 8. Republican leaders in the House of Representatives had inserted into a tax bill a provision called “Safe Harbor for Churches,” designed to keep the IRS from bothering clergy members who engage in specified political activities. This time, along with the crossfire from the GOP side and Lynn, Kirkpatrick quoted Land as saying, somewhat opaquely, “We don’t think that churches should be endorsing candidates, but that should be a decision made by the churches, not by the government.”

The following week, Alan Cooperman of the Washington Post reported that “Safe Harbor” had been dropped from the tax bill because of religious opposition—in particular a letter from Land to the House Ways and Means committee to the effect that enforcing the bill’s provisions would lead to “an unacceptable intrusion of the IRS into the business of a church.”

Finally, on July 1, David Morgan of Reuters revealed that the Bush campaign had sent out a “guide” for volunteers who were engaged in mobilizing support among conservative churches; among a couple of dozen “duties” was a directive to send church directories to campaign headquarters. Now Land described himself as “appalled.”

His dissenting view itself became lede-worthy, as in a July 2 AP story that began, “The Southern Baptist Convention, a conservative denomination closely aligned with President Bush, said it was offended by the Bush-Cheney campaign’s effort to use church rosters for campaign purposes.”

Land’s exposition went as follows: “The bottom line is, when a church does it, it’s nonpartisan and appropriate. When a campaign does it, it’s partisan and inappropriate…. I suspect that this will rub a lot of pastors’ fur the wrong way.”

For anyone following Republican outreach to white evangelical churches over the past couple of decades, it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that Land was being a tad disingenuous. Imagine if you will the following exchange taking place on the evening of November 2, 2004, in the Fellowship Hall of First Baptist Church, Casablanca, Ga.

Bush volunteer: How can you close me up? On what grounds?
Pastor: I’m shocked, shocked to find that politics is going on in here!
[A church secretary hands Pastor a sheet of election returns.]
Secretary: Your winnings, sir.
Pastor: [sotto voce] Oh, thank you very much.
Pastor: [aloud] Everybody out at once!

Land is no dummy and has been around a long time—still, let’s try to take him at his word.

Southern Baptists happen to be heirs of a tradition that takes separation of church and state very seriously. It was America’s first Baptist, Roger Williams, who first used the metaphor of the wall of separation, and what he had in mind was not only protecting the garden of the church from the wilderness of the world but also keeping churchly influence out of secular affairs.

So even though Southern Baptists have thrown themselves into conservative politics in the past generation, Land is doubtless right that a goodly number of his pastors twitch at the prospect of getting too mixed up in Caesar’s business. Land, for his part, proposes to turn Williams’ wall into a semi-permeable membrane—permitting the church to diffuse its influence into the worldly wilderness while keeping the flow from going the other way.

It’s worth bearing in mind, however, that the separationist anxieties of Baptists are not shared by all evangelical folk. Their other main spiritual lineage comes out of Methodism, a vigorous tradition committed to the view that the world is its to change.

In the great 19th-century crusades against slavery and alcohol, Methodists played a leading role. Today, their most important descendants are the Pentecostals, who a century ago embraced the Methodist idea of complete sanctification with a vengeance. The most prominent Pentecostal politicos in recent years have been U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and, of course, Pat Robertson, the Christian broadcaster and sometime Republican presidential candidate.

In the present dispensation, church-based political mobilization, GOP style, began with Robertson’s 1988 run for the White House, which saw Pentecostal churches across Iowa turn out the troops to vote for Pat. The campaign machine of George H. W. Bush, managed by the late great Lee Atwater, almost got rolled, but managed to halt the Robertson juggernaut by working Southern pastors very hard.

The lasting legacy of the Robertson campaign was the Christian Coalition, which Robertson established the following year, and which made politicizing evangelical churches its principal object. Over a decade ago, in a message to fledgling Christian Coalition organizers, Robertson declared, “God has endowed us with the authority to govern the world, and with that comes the duty to exercise it. If we are going to be good stewards, we will learn to exercise the precious gift of freedom that God has given to each one of us.”

That’s a far cry from the theology of gloom and Rapture that tends to capture the imagination of outsiders when they think about the weltanschauung of evangelical America. It is, however, the kind of thing we have become accustomed to hear from our current president.

The president, remember, is a Methodist.

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