Religious Politics?

Much is made in the media these days of the importance (or at least the supposed importance) of the "religious vote" in the November elections. People on the left charge that the "Religious Right" is working underhandedly to reelect George Bush and an ultraconservative agenda, while people on the right claim the "Religious Left" is undermining everything from family values to national defense in order to elect John Kerry. While one may not categorically separate people into specific camps, it probably is safe to say that the Religious Right is generally mostly republican-oriented, notwithstanding actual individual registration, while its opposite number is democrat-oriented.

It's a shame that so much is made of the fact that religious-orientation, as diverse as it is, impacts the elective process to what seems an inordinate extent. This is not to say that one's beliefs regarding spiritual elements should not inform his vote. Indeed, the voter's religious beliefs ought to impact his thinking/actions regarding everything, not just elections, and this should happen on an everyday basis. It is to say that it's a pity that religious beliefs can often cause great divisiveness not just within the population as a whole but even within churches, denominations, and families.

It was no accident that John Kerry spoke in the African-American First Church of God in Columbus, Ohio, on July 25, the Sunday following the Democratic Convention in Boston. Nor was it an accident that he spoke February 22 in the famed church of the late protest- and civil rights-leader Martin Luther King, Jr., Ebenezer Baptist of Atlanta, Georgia. Indeed, he and his running mate, John Edwards, make it a routine practice to speak in black churches, as Bill Clinton and Al Gore did back in the 90s, never mind that at least 90-92 percent of the black vote is already locked up for Kerry, as it was for Clinton. In the 80s, Jesse Jackson turned black churches into campaign venues on a regular basis in his runs for the democratic presidential nomination, and one wonders to this day where the "collections" went, how audited, and how much. Since organizations that participate actively in politics may not claim tax-exempt status, one is hard-pressed to see how these churches escape penalty, but they do.

Another approach that is anything but subtle is that taken by an organization initiated in September 2003 and now called the Clergy Network for National leadership Change. It's a "527" organization, meaning that it is not tax-exempt. Its head is Albert Pennybacker of Lexington, Ky., a retired minister and former National Council of Churches honcho, and its headquarters is in the nation's capital. Sitting on its National Committee are James M. Dunn, former executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, an organization dedicated to the "separation of church and state." Dunn is also listed as the president of the BJC Endowment. Serving with Dunn, about whose motives one can only conjecture in light of his former stance, is the Rev. Jesse Jackson, protest-gadfly and head of the Rainbow-Push Coalition, whose latest greatest fame has to do with using his organization's money to support a mistress and illegitimate child by her. His organizations have also been the target of investigations. Dunn and Jackson are strange bedfellows indeed.

The first paragraph of the CLN Mission Statement: As clergy--pastors, rabbis, imams, and other religious leaders, both men and women--we are deeply concerned about the well being of our country, we are committed to sweeping changes--changes in faltering political leadership and its increasing lack of credibility and rejection of public policies increasingly seen as not only failing but actually destructive of the quality of current life and America's future. The actors in CLN are not identified as "citizens" concerned about the well-being of the country; rather, they are clearly identified as clergy and other religious leaders, so it would seem that their sole purpose is to tear down the wall that separates state and church (synagogue, mosque) by entering the elective process through religious convictions/actions only, else they would not identify themselves unmistakably and solely as "religious leaders." So, the CLN is a PAC, pure and simple, dedicated to one purpose, the election of a specific candidate, John Kerry.

It is significant that in the 1,200-member CLN's National Gathering in Cleveland last May vice presidential candidate John Edwards was a speaker. The CLN defines itself as the "Religious Left" on its Web site, thus identifying itself unmistakably with the Democrat Party, although it is inconceivable that more than a bare majority of its members could be as far left as John Kerry or Edwards. In the meantime, church leaders can get around the tax-exempt thing for their churches/organizations, claiming that their political activity derives not from their positions as pastors, etc., but from their membership in the "527" CLN. This, of course, is patently dishonest.

While there is no organization among what many call the "Religious Right" comparable to the CLN, there is constant criticism by the media of local pastors, particularly in "evangelical" churches, concerning alleged politicking within the churches, i.e., preachers actually telling people how to vote. If this has been happening, it is reprehensible and should be condemned. In light of the non-criticism leveled at organizations such as the CLN, as well as the blatant manipulation of members of black churches by Kerry and Edwards, this slamming of evangelicals should seem strange, but it isn't because the major media outlets are liberal. What is strange is the fact that the evangelicals in some ways, particularly with regard to abortion, line up solidly with Roman Catholics, with whom they have little in common as far as doctrine and theology are concerned.

It seems safe to say that the members of CLN (Religious Left) can be expected to be part of the "mainline" denominations, such as the Presbyterian Church, USA, Methodist Church, Episcopal Church, Disciples of Christ, and others with a decidedly liberal viewpoint. These denominations are declining in membership and funding. The evangelicals (Religious Right), such as the 16-million-member Southern Baptist Convention, are sort of holding their own in a nation in which religion is declining as a factor in national life. The Catholics are having their well- publicized problems, but are still a mighty force of more than 65 million members.

In a way, the action by church leaders of all persuasions, if they are dabbling in the politics of things, is lamentable and even disparaging toward the followers, since in essence it implies that the parishioners are too dumb to figure things out for themselves. It would be far better for CLN to disband and for all leaders to "keep to the faith" and let the chips fall where they may politically.