Church, state and the election

The Bush campaign’s attempt to use churches as partisan instruments threatens to polarize our society.

During the last few months, the Bush administration has launched an unprecedented assault on the separation of church and state for political gain.

First, President George W. Bush personally requested that the Vatican try to get U.S. bishops to become more politically active on his behalf.

Second, the Bush-Cheney campaign issued a written guide for religious conservatives that is designed, among other things, to get directories of church members in the hands of campaign operatives. Here are the specifics of these outrageous election-year tactics.

In May, Bishop Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs, Colo., threatened to deny Holy Communion to any member of his diocese who votes for a candidate supporting abortion, same-sex marriage, euthanasia or embryonic stem cell research “Ö until they have recanted their positions and been reconciled with God and the Church in the Sacrament of Penance.”

The president was quick to seek political advantage from this phenomenon. John L. Allen Jr., of the National Catholic Reporter, said, “During his June 4 visit, Bush asked the Vatican to push the American Catholic bishops to be more aggressive politically on family and life issues Ö Bush said, ‘Not all the American bishops are with me’ on the cultural issues.

The implication was that he hoped that the Vatican would nudge them toward more explicit activism.”

In other words, the president of the United States asked a foreign entity (the Vatican) to motivate U.S. bishops to conduct themselves in such a way as to increase his chances for re-election.

Apparently, this action was just the opening gambit of a strategy designed to make religious institutions active campaigners in the November election.

According to Reuters, “President Bush, seeking to mobilize religious conservatives for his re-election campaign, has asked church-going volunteers to turn over church membership directories Ö” The Associated Press reported that the Bush-Cheney campaign guide assigned to a church “campaign coordinator” 22 “duties,” including a time line. The coordinator is to:

– Send your church directory to your state Bush-Cheney ’04 headquarters or give to a Bush-Cheney ’04 field representative.

– Identify another conservative church in your community who we can organize for the Bush-Cheney reelection effort.

– Recruit 5 people in your church to help with the voter registration project.

– Talk to your pastor about holding a citizenship Sunday and voter-registration drive.

Even within one of the most conservative religious organizations in the country, the Southern Baptist Convention, the response to this tactic was one of shock.

The Rev. Richard Land, president of the convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said, “I’m appalled that the Bush-Cheney campaign would intrude on a local congregation in this way.”

Other religious leaders have voiced similar outrage and, in addition, have raised concerns that such actions could jeopardize their tax-exempt status.

Sadly, more partisan political boundaries have been crossed, more long-established “rules of the game” tossed aside.

Bush’s attempt to prod political action by U.S. bishops through the intercession of the Vatican has broken faith with the federal government’s obligation to protect all voters from intimidation, and thus, it has diminished the presidency itself.

The Bush-Cheney campaign’s attempt to use church congregations as partisan political instruments threatens to polarize our society along religious lines and weaken the very fabric of the republic.

Great things can be accomplished by people of faith, whatever that faith might be. But, when religious institutions attempt to intimidate voters and, worse, when self-serving politicians invite these institutions to intrude into the electoral process, our democracy suffers, and we along with it.

Steven D. Popell is a management consultant and author. Please send comments to [email protected]