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
[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
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.