Monday, August 09, 2004

Churches and Bush campaign ignore laws regarding separation of Church and State

Churches See an Election Role and Spread the Word on Bush
August 9, 2004

ST. LOUIS, Aug. 8 - Susanne Jacobsmeyer, a member of the West County Assembly of God in a St. Louis suburb, voted for George W. Bush four years ago, but mostly out of loyalty as a Republican and not with much passion.

This year, Ms. Jacobsmeyer is a "team leader" in the Bush campaign's effort to turn out conservative Christian voters. "This year I am voting for him as a man of faith," she said over breakfast after an early morning service. "He has proven that he will do what is right, and he will look to God first."

Jan Klarich, her friend and another team leader, agreed. "Don't you feel it is a spiritual battle?" she asked to nods around the table.

The Bush campaign is seeking to rally conservative churches and their members to help turn out sympathetic voters this fall, and West County Assembly of God, a 600-member evangelical congregation in a Republican district of a pivotal swing state, is on the front lines of the effort.

The church's pastor, John A. Wilson, has led a prayer for the president every Sunday for 10 years. His sermons often extol the importance of opposing abortion, stem cell research and same-sex marriage, and he says he supports Mr. Bush's decision to go to war in Iraq.

Before Missouri voted last week to add a ban on same-sex marriage to the state's Constitution and keep in place a restriction on gambling, the church newsletter endorsed both measures so vigorously that the post office denied the church its usually discounted postal rate for engaging in political activity.

To promote involvement on social issues, Mr. Wilson said, the church has formed a dozen-member "moral action team."

They hold open meetings for parishioners each month. They inform church members about socially conservative electoral issues. They register them to vote at stands outside the sanctuary on designated "voter registration" Sundays. Last week, the "moral action team" even drove church members to the polls, and they plan to do the same for this fall's general election as well.

Ms. Klarich, a former state Republican Party official and former state chairman of the Christian Coalition, founded a local Republican organization meeting in an office park next to the church, and many members of the congregation attend.

Last year, the Bush campaign sent Ralph Reed, its Southeast regional chairman and the former chairman of the Christian Coalition, to speak to her group.

"I have Bush speakers, and we distribute bumper stickers and all kinds of things," Ms. Klarich said.

Still, Mr. Wilson, the pastor, said that even in his politically active and socially conservative congregation he stops short of endorsing candidates or parties from the pulpit, partly for fear of alienating some members of the congregation and distracting from his spiritual mission.

Socially conservative pastors and priests are wrestling with their potentially pivotal role in the tight presidential race. In interviews with more than a dozen religious leaders in the St. Louis area, several said they felt a duty to speak up for what they consider biblical values like opposition to abortion and same sex-marriage. Some also mentioned the longstanding role of African-American pastors in encouraging their members to vote for Democrats.

But all of the clergy members also expressed a fear of letting partisanship distract from their spiritual mission. They also worried about endangering their churches' tax-exempt status. The tax code restricts churches and other charitable organizations from engaging in partisan politics, although church leaders can speak about social issues and register voters. All of the pastors said they neither expressly endorse political candidates from the pulpit nor permitted explicit campaigning within their churches, no matter how clear they felt the implications of their religious teachings to be.

Some traditionalists on social issues also expressed some uncertainty about other aspects of the Bush administration, like its emphasis on tax cuts and its conduct of the war in Iraq.

"I don't see how a president could call on so many young men and women to sacrifice in our nation's service and not call the rest of us to sacrifice financially as well," said Rudy Pulido, pastor of Southwest Baptist Church, a member of the theologically conservative Southern Baptist Convention, and the president of the local chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Many conservative pastors bristled at the notion that they are being enlisted by a campaign, instead describing their voter registration efforts as fulfilling biblical obligations.

"They know that to a degree they are a target of candidates and campaigns, and there is this natural tendency to say, we need to insulate ourselves," said Kerry K. Messer, a Southern Baptist layperson and founder of the socially conservative Missouri Family Network. "I see it more as a grass-roots movement. People are starting to say, we have got this figured out. These are the bad guys, we are the good guys, why is it that we can't talk about this at our local church?''

But the Bush campaign is doing everything it can to encourage those grass-roots efforts. Karl Rove, Mr. Bush's top political adviser, has often said he believes that four million fewer conservative Christians turned out to vote than he projected in the 2000 election, almost costing Mr. Bush the presidency, and the campaign is determined not to let that happen again.

So the Bush campaign sent Mr. Reed to recruit pastors at the annual meeting of the conservative Southern Baptist Convention. According to campaign memorandums, it has asked "people of faith team leaders" to help identify thousands of "friendly congregations" around the country. It asked religious outreach volunteers to petition their pastors to hold voter registration drives, and to speak on behalf of the campaign to Bible studies and church groups.

The campaign has asked volunteers to send in copies of congregational directories for comparison with voter registration rolls - a move some conservative religious leaders have denounced as a violation of the privacy of the church and its members.

The Republican Party has sent has organized a special Catholic outreach tour, including a speech by the party chairman, Ed Gillespie, in St. Charles, a St. Louis suburb.

As about 500 people gathered for the 5 p.m. Saturday Mass at the St. Peter Parish Church in St. Charles, his appeals appeared to fall on fertile ground. The Rev. John J. Ghio included a prayer for "reverence for all human life from conception" in the service. A Catholic voting guide in the program noted that Archbishop Raymond L. Burke of the Archdiocese of St. Louis has said it is a sin to vote for candidates who support abortion rights, a group that includes Senator John Kerry. The guide listed "non-negotiable" issues of abortion, euthanasia, stem cell research, human cloning and same-sex marriage.

"I don't know how a Catholic in good conscience could vote for a candidate who was pro abortion," Father Ghio said after the service.

Just around the corner, the Rev. Richard J. Tillman of St. Charles Borromeo Church took a different approach, arguing that concerns about life also applied to the invasion of Iraq, which the Catholic Church has opposed. After an invitation to give an invocation when Mr. Bush spoke in St. Charles, he said, he was disinvited because of his opposition to the war.

Pastors at several typically conservative evangelical Protestant churches said they were more determined than ever to get their parishioners to the polls.

The Rev. Gerald Davidson of the 5,000-member First Baptist Church of Arnold, Mo., put it like this: "I say, Don't let your labor union, don't let the teachers groups and all the other different groups tell you how to vote - you vote the way the way the word of God tells you to vote."

In an interview, Ms. Klarich said that she sometimes discussed political matters in a Bible study group she attends with 300 women each week. "Politics is a no-no, so you have to be very careful," she said. "But if they tend to respect you, they tend to take your view on things."

At breakfast after the service at West County Assembly of God, Bob Payne, a church member, said he had seen photographic evidence of Mr. Bush's faith. The leader of the local chapter of the Full Gospel Businessmen's Fellowship International had passed around a picture of Mr. Bush and his cabinet with their heads bowed in prayer, he said.

Ms. Klarich said that she had planned to send a copy of the church's directory to the Bush campaign, which she said was a common practice, and that she and Mr. Payne planned to write letters to their neighbors in their subdivision. Soon the conversation turned to wondering if promoting the Bush campaign at the church was really just "preaching to the choir." But then they were reminded of the crucial question of turnout.

"Do you think it would help to have friends-and-neighbors coffees?" Ms. Klarich asked.