You know things are getting out of hand when your usual debate opponents begin admitting that you're right. This has happened to me lately, particularly on two nationally broadcast radio shows I have done for National Public Radio on the topic of religion and politics.
On "To The Point," one of the other guests was Paul Weyrich, founder of the Free Congress Foundation. Weyrich was one of the first right-wingers, who, back in the 1970s, tried to get conservative churchgoers involved in partisan politics.
I criticized an e-mail sent from the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign that sought to locate 1,600 "friendly congregations" in Pennsylvania to be sites for meetings and campaign material distribution. Weyrich conceded that approach was "over the top."
A few days later on "The Connection," my opposite number was Paige Patterson, former head of the Southern Baptist Convention and one of the architects of the successful fundamentalist effort to take control of that denomination.
I told the program host that I was shocked to learn that a church in Philadelphia that had just received a $1 million "faith-based" grant was run by a pastor who endorsed George W. Bush in the 2000 election. The Rev. Herb Lusk, speaking from his church via satellite feed to the 2000 National Republican Convention, endorsed Bush on behalf of his entire congregation. I said this absolutely reeked of favoritism. Surprisingly, Patterson chimed in that while he often supports Bush, "it's not a blind support where I automatically authenticate everything that he does or says" and added that, like me, he opposes the faith-based initiative!
NPR's interest in the question of the appropriate role of faith in an election season was mirrored by other media operations. Don Lattin, long-time religion correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, noted in a June 21 article five major examples of interaction between religion and politics during the first two weeks of June alone.
Sometimes intense press coverage of a topic merely gives the appearance that more is happening than usual. (Remember the "shark attack" mania a few summers ago?) This time, though, I think the media's emphasis on religion in politics is reflecting a real trend. The issue has ballooned since I wrote about it in this column back in February.
Bush's visit to the Vatican, for example, sparked much media interest. It's ironic that this year, when it appears that the Democratic Party will nominate a Roman Catholic as its presidential candidate, the campaign staff of the incumbent United Methodist president is reaching out to Catholic voters in unparalleled fashion. According to reports from the National Catholic Reporter and The New York Times, Bush asked Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano for Vatican help, complaining that "not all the American bishops are with me" on issues the president is championing as part of his re-election campaign.
Unlike President Ronald Reagan, who chatted with the pope about such global concerns as the end of communism, Bush seems to have more partisan and provincial issues on his mind.
A few American bishops, of course, don't need any persuasion from the Vatican. I was on CNBC's "Capital Report" May 14 with Bishop Michael J. Sheridan, who issued a pastoral letter to his parishioners in Colorado Springs telling them that they shouldn't take communion if they vote for candidates who are pro-choice on abortion, pro-stem cell research and pro-gay marriage.
Sheridan's action was a step beyond the advice of St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke that pro-choice politicians shouldn't expect to receive communion. There is an apparent backlash to this tactic even among Catholic voters, many of whom believe their consciences (and even the Constitution) might be a better source for political information. A new poll by Catholics for a Free Choice, for example, shows that 76 percent of American Catholics disagree with denying communion to church members based on how they vote.
There was also a peculiar "double backlash" to the e-mail incident in Pennsylvania. Just days after the effort came to light, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay tried to quietly include a provision in a "jobs creation" bill before the Ways and Means Committee that would have altered the tax code to allow for more overt church politicking.
Most observers did not see the timing as merely coincidental. The committee, however, rebelled and both Republican and Democratic members struck the so-called "Safe Harbor for Churches" provision from the bill.
Maybe this will all stop. Maybe AU's "Project Fair Play," which reminds churches and other religious institutions of the law regarding intervention in partisan campaigns, will be successful.
When necessary, AU will continue to report to appropriate authorities those flagrant abuses of tax status to benefit anyone's favored political candidates. On the flip side, perhaps the candidates will tell their campaigns to steer clear of "outreach" that plays on religious affiliation as a litmus test for suitability for office. Perhaps candidate John Kerry will not quote Scripture to criticize President Bush's policies, but stick to articulating whatever policy disagreements he has.
Unfortunately, it may not stop. Will we then see the entire presidential campaign end with a round of "Bible Jeopardy" played in primetime on the Fox News Channel? One hopes not.
Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.