The presidential pulpit

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The intersection of church and state: The Living Way Church on North Interstate 35 meets the Bush/Cheney team. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

Eroding the barrier between church and state, Bush wins over the religious vote

In early 1999, George W. Bush made an appearance on Fort Worth televangelist James Robison's TV show, Life Today. Robison asked the then-governor of Texas about rampant rumors that he was mulling a run for president. Bush confirmed that he was considering it, but first needed to decide if he would be able to change the culture of Washington. The studio audience enthusiastically applauded. They recognized this seemingly oblique reference for what it was: evangelical code language.

Nearly four years into his presidency, Bush's impact on the culture of Washington remains debatable, but he's undoubtedly altered the playing field for religious institutions in America. Two years before deploying troops in Iraq, he unleashed what he likes to call "the armies of compassion" through a controversial faith-based initiative. His use of born-again language and willingness to apply his faith to legislation have stirred new debates on old questions about the separation between church and state. More than any presidential election in recent memory, the 2004 race often feels like a referendum on theology.

The Bush campaign urged supporters to identify potentially "friendly congregations" in Pennsylvania where they can pass out campaign information. A group of black ministers in New Jersey publicly endorsed Democratic nominee John Kerry for president. Meanwhile, everything from stem cell research to abortion to public education to same-sex marriage to the United States' role in the global community reverberates with the issue of faith. For First Amendment watchdogs, it's an unsettling development.

"We're not electing a national pastor," says Jeremy Leaming, spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "We're electing a president of the United States."

Leaming's organization helped lead opposition to Bush's 2001 faith-based initiative - the cornerstone of his domestic agenda - and continues to deride the lack of regulation and oversight in the program.

"He campaigned hard on that in 2000 and he brings that up all the time as a positive," Leaming says. "Our organization believes the administration has taken tax dollars away from secular organizations that have longtime track records of dealing with these social services and he's handed them over to faith-based organizations, which have very little evidence that they've worked on these things for very long. Beyond that, it's troubling because it seems to violate the letter of the First Amendment, which calls for separation of church and state."

Americans United's position corresponds with a study by the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund, which looked into Bush's statewide experiment with faith-based initiatives from 1996-2001. As governor of Texas, Bush directed state government agencies to step up contracting with faith-based social-service providers. He also redirected public funds to such social programs, while loosening regulations that might limit them. The result, according to the Texas Freedom Network, was an unwieldy disaster. Its study describes a "radical change in licensing and regulation laws to loosen oversight" over some faith-based provision of social services.

In 1997, with strong backing from Bush, the Texas Legislature established an alternative accreditation system, allowing child-care centers to avoid state licensing regulations. Instead, these centers were monitored by the Texas Association of Christian Child-Care Agencies (TACCCA). The Texas Freedom Network found that three of the eight facilities TACCA accredited "were run by pastors who served on the TACCA board." More significantly, "the rate of confirmed abuse and neglect at alternatively accredited facilities was 25 times higher than that of state-licensed facilities."

The notion of taking chemical-addiction treatment out of the hands of trained counselors and putting it in the hands of unregulated, unlicensed religious institutions makes little sense unless you share Bush's religious perspective.

According to Stephen Mansfield's book, The Faith of George W. Bush, the president told Robison, his frequent confidante, that he had suffered from a drinking problem that threatened to destroy his most important personal relationships. He credits a 1985 conversation with the Reverend Billy Graham for planting "the mustard seed in my soul" and placing him on the path of Christian righteousness. The encounter happened the year before Bush's 40th birthday, and he has publicly conceded that he stopped drinking when he turned 40.

So when Bush argues that faith-based treatment can often achieve miracles that a more clinical approach cannot match, he apparently speaks from personal experience. As Leaming points out, however, he offers no other solid evidence to support this theory.

"There are faith-based organizations who are just now getting into certain kinds of drug counseling, or juvenile drug counseling, only because they see some federal dollars there," he says. "President Bush's administration likes to claim that faith-based organizations can deal with these social services better than the government or secular services can. But they don't back that up with any kind of empirical data. They just say that and it's supposed to be a given. That is troubling."

The separation of church and state has always been uneasy, partly because Christianity exerts such a powerful pull on every aspect of American life
Leaming adds that a breakdown of the separation between governmental and religious institutions can be as detrimental to churches as to government.

"The separation of church and state is there to insure that taxpayers are not funding some kind of religious mission," he says. "Religion in this country has flourished because of voluntary giving.

"In Spain, the clergy are paid by tax dollars. And yet Europe is seen as much more secular than we are. I think that the separation of church and state has been helpful to both government and religion. And there are plenty of religious organizations that are wary of the faith-based initiative, who say 'Once we take these federal dollars, we'll have to deal with government strings and attachments.'"

According to Mansfield's book, Bush told Robison in 2000 that he did not particularly want the burden of the presidency, but said: "I feel like God wants me to run for president." While such talk could easily scare off less earnest believers, Bush is careful to frame his language in a way that will be readily understood by evangelicals, but not offensive to others. For instance, he often talks about promoting a "culture of life," but never comes out and says he supports a ban on abortion. He speaks of the need for ethics on the issue of embryonic stem-cell research, yet didn't shut off federal funding completely. For a man who brags that he doesn't "do nuance," he flexes his faith pretty carefully when the national spotlight gets uncomfortably bright.

The separation of church and state has always been uneasy, partly because Christianity exerts such a powerful pull on every aspect of American life, and partly because opinions differ on what the separation really means. Some perceive it as a means of protecting the church against the kind of government intrusion that American colonists escaped in England.

The most powerful Revolutionary-era treatise on the concept came from Thomas Jefferson, a Deist with little of the religious fervor of his contemporaries. In the 1786 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, Jefferson noted that "our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry." He blasted "fallible and uninspired men" who "set up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible." Finally, he concluded that one's religious beliefs - or lack thereof - "shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities."

A 2004 study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life offers persuasive evidence that, Jefferson's wishes aside, a large part of the American electorate does apply a religious litmus test to its politicians. Examining the opinions of the country's three major religious blocs - evangelical Christians, mainline Protestants, and white Catholics - it found that 72 percent of registered voters have strong religious views, and that respondents liked to see candidates address their faith. The most revealing part of the study was that the major division among Americans is not along denominational lines, but between traditionalists and modernists. Traditionalists tend to support Bush, while modernists lean toward Kerry. Even though he's Catholic, Kerry trails among Catholic voters, because traditionalists in that denomination are concerned about abortion and same-sex marriage.

While pastors commonly discuss social issues from the pulpit, a controversial bill proposed (but not yet introduced) by Walter Jones, a Republican congressman from North Carolina, would enable religious organizations, unlike other non-profits, to endorse candidates and not jeopardize their tax benefits.

"We would hope, and think, that houses of worship are more than units of partisan hackwork," Leaming says. "Politics is very divisive, and there are many folks seeking spiritual advice. It's got to be troubling to them if they have a pastor up there endorsing a political candidate and saying, 'This is how you should vote.'

"It's not only divisive, but probably also insulting to a lot of churchgoers. I think it's really just a handful. The vast majority of churches in this country are not interested in becoming political outfits. But you do have some who push that line and want very much to become actively involved in politicking."

By Gilbert Garcia

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