COMMENTARY: Bush Campaign’s `Outreach’ Is More Like Overreach

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c. 2004 Religion News Service

(Rabbi Rudin, the American Jewish Committee’s Senior Interreligious Adviser, is Distinguished Visiting Professor at Saint Leo University.)

(UNDATED) Try to guess who wrote these words:

“Be wary, be on your guard, regarding the government because it does not come near to a person except for its own needs. The government appears like a friend when it is to its advantage, but it does not stand by persons in their hour of need.”

Do you think these cautionary words are from a contemporary political figure or religious leader? Guess again.

Jewish sages, between the third century B.C. and the third century A.D., authored the quote and placed it in the Mishnah, part of Judaism’s basic religious teachings. It was superb advice then and remains so today.

I was reminded of this ancient wisdom when I read about the Bush-Cheney campaign’s recent attempt to acquire church membership rolls for political purposes. The GOP has established a time line for its “coalition coordinators” in the religious community. Among the coordinators’ goals is providing church directories to the local Bush-Cheney headquarters by July 31. Coordinators are also asked to identify a “conservative church” that can organize for the president’s re-election efforts.

This dangerous scheme probably sounded good at the national Bush-Cheney command center. Polls indicate that voters who frequently attend houses of worship are more likely to support the president than those who do not participate in regular religious services.

A primary target of the Republican strategy was the Southern Baptist Convention, America’s second-largest Christian body and a theologically conservative denomination whose members strongly voted for Bush in 2000.

But the power play to grab church membership lists has backfired badly.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptists’ Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, was outraged: “I’m appalled that the Bush-Cheney campaign would intrude on a local congregation in this way. The bottom line is, when a church does it, it’s nonpartisan and appropriate. When a campaign does it, it’s partisan and inappropriate. … This will rub a lot of pastors’ fur the wrong way. … A lot of pastors are going to say, `Wait a minute, bub.”’

The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, was equally disgusted by the Bush-Cheney efforts to use church membership data in the current presidential campaign: “It’s a shameless attempt to misuse and abuse churches for partisan political ends.”

Lynn and Land disagree on many issues, but they are together on this one. And for good reason.

One of our nation’s greatest strengths is the historic legal principle of church-state separation. It has resulted in an extraordinarily robust religious life in the United States, and that sacred principle has enabled the religious community to fulfill its mandate as a theological critic of the government and its policies.

Nathan, the biblical prophet, spoke truth _ unpleasant truth _ to power in his confrontation with the “government” of his day, King David. Nathan described David’s sins and shortcomings, pointed an accusing finger at the national leader, and declared, “Thou art the man!”

The task of religious institutions is not to aid and abet political candidates, but rather to act as a righteous judge of any king, emperor, prince or president. The preservation of that task is a sacred duty. But once any religious body supplies a political campaign with members’ names and other vital data, it has lost its spiritual and moral compass.

Let me be clear: America’s religious communities have every right to articulate and debate various issues of the day, including human rights, the environment, gun control, abortion, women’s rights, voting rights, vouchers, capital punishment and a host of other concerns.

But when those same religious communities are co-opted by the government, they lose their members’ trust and their ethical legitimacy. The 18th century founders of this nation recognized that danger and enshrined religious liberty and freedom from government control and manipulation in the Bill of Rights.

Some people worry that today religion plays too large a role in shaping public policy questions. That is a valid subject for debate. My great fear, however, is not that America’s religions will dominate the government. Just the opposite.

I fear the powerful American government will ultimately control our churches, synagogues and mosques. The Bush-Cheney campaign’s attempt to use church membership data for raw political purposes is an ugly first step in the moral destruction of America’s religious communities.

I hope this blatant crossing of the line between church and state will be rejected and tossed into its rightful place _ the dustbin of history.


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