Friday, October 13, 2006

Barry Lynn on Politics and the Pulpit

More from last Sunday's forum. Barry Lynn is the Executive Director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, and the author of Piety & Politics: The Right-Wing Assault on Religious Freedom.

The issue in Ohio is the same one we're seeing all over the country, and I'm going to phrase this question in three ways.

Will churches deliberately or unwittingly let their sanctuaries become soapboxes for selected candidates for public office?

Will the churchgoers know incense from the altar or cigar smoke from the partisan political activity in the basement when they walk into a church?

Will the church advocate the civic responsiblity of voting, or advance the candidacies of certain people they want to see elected?

The rubber really will hit the road in the next few weeks, and here is what I hope will *not* happen in Ohio or around the country. Churches should not be opening their doors to meetings of, say, the Fairfield County Republican Party unless it is willing to do precisely the same for the Fairfield County Democratic Party. Churches should not a Democratic senate candidate to "say a few words" in their churches before election day unless they invite the Republican candidate to do exactly the same thing. And perhaps most importantly, churches should not distribute or allow to be distributed in houses of worship, any so-called "voter guides" that are obviously created to support one candidate over all others.

This year, a number of entitities have announced plans to put out these voter guides--the Christian Coalition, created by Pat Robertson, announced its intention to do so just this past week. And Focus on the Family has promised to have its State Policy Councils--Phil's group is one--to prepare and distribute guides in eight targeted states, which just happen to hold the key to whether the Senate is primarily Democratic or Republican after the election.

And here's my prediction based on the past practice of these groups. If you cannot tell for whom you are supposed to vote, after looking at, say, a Christian Coalition guide, then you obviously need new glasses. (Laughter).

How can voter guides be in violation of the IRS regulations? The first clue is that they're on a very narrow range of issues, not like the League of Women Voters. The second might be that they allegedly cull candidate positions from newspapers and other public sources, and then reduce these very complicated issues just to whether a candidate favors or opposes a position--one word answers to complex questions.

Based on these past practices, a lot of these voter guides, produced by the so-called "religious right", frankly are going to make all Republicans look like they are next in line for elevation to sainthood, and make every Democrat appear to be the next candidate for becoming a wax figurine in the House of Horrors museum in New Jersey. That's what they're intended to do. Those characterizations can be made using a variety of techniques.

A 2004 guide from Focus on the Family had language that used phrases like "partial birth abortion". Ladies and gentlemen, that is not a medical term, that is a political slogan of the right. When it appears in a document, it makes it very clear where the producer of that document wants people to stand. And I hope that when third party advocates of groups that are not member of your church come to your church and ask to distribute these voter guides, you look at them very carefully, whether they come from left, right, or center. Because pimping for any party or politician has no business occurring in the chapel, in the narthex, or even in the parking lot of any church in the United States of America.

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