Fighters for freedom of religion and freedom of conscience are voicing alarm that 228 years after the nation’s birth, George W. Bush and the ultra-right are waging a ferocious assault on separation of church and state, a pillar of democracy and toleration.
They cite taxpayer money doled out to favored churches in Bush’s “faith-based initiative,” his support for taxpayer funded vouchers for students attending parochial schools, appointment of judges who would tear down the wall separating church and state, and his claim that his Iraq war and other policies are approved by God.
“We see this as the biggest assault on the separation of church and state in the history of our country,” said Don Parker, a media spokesperson for the Interfaith Alliance, which unites 150,000 Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, and other believers, as well as secular humanists, atheists, and agnostics. The group has been endorsed by former CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite, who warned in an open letter that he is “deeply disturbed by the dangerous and growing influence of people like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell on our nation’s political leaders.”
Cronkite points out that both Robertson and Falwell called the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack God’s punishment against “feminists, pro-choice Americans, and other groups” they despise.
“The Christian Coalition has more than 2 million members and a growing coffer of funds, helping it influence elections and political candidates,” Cronkite continued. “Even politicians who privately dislike its tactics or are uncomfortable with its political agenda, have been scared into submission. So I ask you today to stand with the Interfaith Alliance to challenge the intolerant influence of the Religious Right in civic life.”
Alliance spokesman Don Parker said the principle of preserving a wall between church and state “is absolutely vital both for the good of religion and the good of government. It goes back to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. It was Thomas Jefferson who advocated ‘a wall of separation between church and state.’”
The Bush administration’s faith-based initiative tears down that wall and permits a church receiving federal funds to bar workers from employment based on his or her religion. “And it is forcing families to decide to give up their religious freedom in order to feed their children,” he said, referring to pressures on recipients of faith-based charities.
Bush is engaged in a many-sided and highly demagogic drive to enlist religion in his efforts to win another four years in office.
The White House sent out an e-mail last month to 1,600 churches in Pennsylvania asking them to register voters and proselytize their congregations to support Bush-Cheney in flagrant violation of federal laws barring churches from engaging in partisan politics.
The issue came into stark focus when Bush flew to Philadelphia last month and spoke at Exodus Baptist Church. As Bush beamed, the Rev. Herbert Lusk II, pastor of the church, told the congregation Bush “is worth the African American vote.”
The White House had doled out $1 million in funds to the church as part of Bush’s “faith-based initiative.”
Rob Boston, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told the World, “This is truly disgusting, crass, partisan politics. They are using these tax funds as payola, hoping to buy off enough Black ministers to depress what is normally a solid liberal vote, especially in swing states like Pennsylvania.”
He pointed out that lawmakers rebuffed Bush’s attempt to ram the “faith-based initiative” through Congress. Both Democrats and Republicans warned that it would undermine a fundamental democratic principle enshrined in the Constitution.
Bush then brazenly wrote an Executive Order setting up the “faith-based” slush fund by executive fiat. Jim Towey, head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, has made repeated appearances at churches, standing alongside Bush and other Republican candidates, to announce federal grants to the churches located in districts with hotly contested elections.
It is not limited to Protestant churches. While he was in Europe, recently, Bush visited the Vatican and pleaded with Pope John Paul II to lean on the American bishops to support his reactionary policies. The Pope repeated his criticism of Bush’s Iraq war and condemned the torture of Iraqi detainees. Even so, the Bush-Cheney campaign undoubtedly hopes that Bush’s highly publicized photo op with the Pope will help win Catholic votes in November.
Bush’s trip coincided with the statement by four right-wing bishops that communion should be denied to Catholic elected officials who support abortion rights, most notably Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) – a thinly veiled ploy to help the beleaguered Bush-Cheney campaign while intimidating Catholics from voting for Kerry.
Michelle Ringuette, a spokesperson for Catholics for Choice, said according to a recent poll, 74 percent of the nation’s Roman Catholics “reject the notion that Catholic voters have a religious obligation to vote against candidates who support legal abortion.” And the same poll showed that 78 percent did not agree with the denial of communion for Catholic elected officials who are pro-choice.
The handful of right-wing bishops who take that position, she told the World, “are showing a readiness to name politicians, almost uniformly targeting Democrats. This is the first time and it is a great concern when it applies to a presidential candidate. I, as a Catholic, do not feel this is an appropriate role for bishops to play. Out of all the dioceses, only four bishops have taken this position.”
The founder of the Interfaith Alliance, the Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, a Baptist preacher from Louisiana, said he was “horrified” when Bush claimed God’s endorsement for his invasion of Iraq. “How dare any politician, including the president, even implicitly suggest that God is a kind of mascot for the nation,” Rev. Gaddy said. “Affirmation of a particular faith must never be made a litmus test for measuring patriotism.”
Parker said it is frightening that Bush would claim he is taking the nation to war “because God wants him to. Graveyards all over the world are filled with victims of people who thought they were doing God’s will.”
Dr. Calvin Morris, executive director of the Chicago-based Community Renewal Society, told the World, “It is ironic, and dangerously so, that the present Bush administration rails against the religious fundamentalism of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, while asserting a similar fundamentalism of its own. This administration needs to realize that God is not an adherent of American foreign policy, but a God above all nations and ideologies.”
Bush and other ultra-right ideologues pose as “strict constructionists” who insist on a literal interpretation of the Constitution as intended by the “founding fathers.” But Rob Boston pointed out that the ultra-right abandons this guideline when it comes to the separation of church and state, a doctrine staunchly defended by signers of the Declaration of Independence. They led a revolution to overthrow a monarch who claimed the “divine right of kings.” Now Bush himself seems to be wrapping himself in the same tyrannical powers of King George III.
James Madison, in his 1785 “Memorial and Remonstrance” against a bill by fellow Virginian Patrick Henry, argued that taxpayer funding of any church “will be a dangerous abuse of power. … Faithful members of a free state (are bound) to remonstrate against it.”
Religious freedom, Madison continued, is “one of the noblest characteristics of our late Revolution. … Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity in exclusion of all other religions may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians. … That the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property to the support of any one establishment may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever?”
State religion, he added, has been used “to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of Civil Society,” and has fomented “pride and indolence in the clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity … superstition, bigotry, and persecution.”
Boston said the Bush-Cheney assault on freedom of religion recalls the attempt by religious ultra-rightists in the last half of the 19th century to “rewrite the Constitution to include explicit references to Jesus Christ and to begin to build a theocratic state” in the U.S. “This was an attempt to put the entire country under the sway of fundamentalist, ultra-conservative Christians. What the Bush administration is trying to do today is more subtle but equally dangerous.”
While Bush seeks to use religion for his reactionary agenda, Christian churches, Jewish temples, Muslim mosques, and other houses of worship often play a progressive role. Clergymen like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. rallied the faithful against racial segregation, the war in Vietnam and in support of union workers, a struggle for which he gave his life.
The National Council of Churches (NCC) and its general secretary, the Rev. Bob Edgar, has spoken out against the Iraq war and occupation. The NCC released a pastoral letter to its 36 member churches with 40 million members on May 11 condemning the “cycle of violence” in Iraq “brought home to all Americans and indeed the world in the horrific pictures of prisoner abuse. …We are convinced that current policy is dangerous for America and the world and will only lead to further violence. We therefore call for a change of course in Iraq … to turn over the transition of authority and postwar reconstruction to the United Nations.”
The ultra-right, enraged by these NCC positions for peace and justice, has targeted the group. The Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) seeks to foment a right-wing reaction within the clergy and laity of the United Methodist Church (UMC), the Presbyterian Church USA, and Episcopal Church, three of the largest affiliates of the NCC, to attack the progressive policies of the NCC. The IRD has received millions of dollars from the Richard Mellon-Scaife Foundation, Adolph Coors, the John M. Olin Foundation and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation of Milwaukee to carry out this dirty work.
The IRD won infamy in defending the Reagan-Bush covert war in Central America during the 1980s, in which tens of thousands of innocent people died. They supported House speaker Newt Gingrich’s infamous “Contract on America.” Winning, or stealing, a second term for George W. Bush is at the top of their agenda.
Journalist Leon Howell in his recent book, “United Methodism at Risk,” warns that the UMC must recognize the danger of this tightly organized, highly motivated, and well-financed “take-no-prisoners” crusade to take over the churches and turn them in a right-wing direction. He called on the church leaders and laity to rise up in a “fighting mood” to repel the attack.
Similarly, Bush has made a determined pitch for support of 30 million people who call themselves Christian evangelicals and fundamentalists. Yet even here there are winds of change. The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), which includes the Assemblies of God, Church of the Nazarene, and International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, is circulating the draft of a statement to guide them in their political action in the Nov. 2 elections.
The draft strongly endorses social and economic justice and warns against close alignment with any political party. It endorses government protections for the poor, the sick and disabled including fair wages, health care, nutrition and education. But it also restates longstanding evangelical opposition to same-sex marriage, abortion rights, and stem cell research.
The document, three years in preparation, will go before the NAE board for debate and final approval in October. Bush seeks to use “wedge issues” like his constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage to enlist the evangelicals. The challenge for John Kerry and other candidates seeking to defeat the ultra-right is to build unity based on parts of the NAE program that would benefit millions of working people of all faiths.
One of the evangelical preachers engaged in that effort is the Rev. Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners. Wallis wrote an article for the Sept.-Oct. 2003 edition of Sojourners’ magazine, “Dangerous Religion: George W. Bush’s Theology of Empire.” The article put it bluntly: “The real theological problem in America today is no longer the Religious Right but the nationalist religion of the Bush administration, one that confuses the identity of the church and God’s purposes with the mission of American empire.”
Wallis adds, “America’s foreign policy is more than pre-emptive, it is theologically presumptuous, not only unilateral but dangerously messianic, not just arrogant but bordering on the idolatrous and blasphemous. … This is a dangerous mix of bad foreign policy and bad theology.”
Tim Wheeler is the national political correspondent of the PWW.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.