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 Washington Notebook

June 16, 2004
Vol. 1, No. 23

Joe Feuerherd, NCR Washington correspondent


Campaigns Get Religion; Judiciary Subcommittee Considers Church and State

By Joe Feuerherd

With 35 million Americans watching, Ron Reagan took a rhetorical shot at George W. Bush. Speaking before his father’s interment at the presidential library in Simi Valley, and approaching the eloquence associated with his namesake, Reagan recalled the late president’s faith.

“Dad was also a deeply, unabashedly religious man. But he never made the fatal mistake of so many politicians wearing his faith on his sleeve to gain political advantage. True, after he was shot and nearly killed early in his presidency, he came to believe that God had spared him in order that he might do good. But he accepted that as a responsibility, not a mandate. And there is a profound difference.”

Of the two major presidential candidates only one could reasonably be accused of “wearing his faith on his sleeve.” And it’s not John Kerry.

Conventional wisdom holds that voters will make up their minds on Bush and Kerry based on the economy and the war in Iraq. The election, it is said, will turn on the relatively small number of undecided voters in such key swing states as Ohio, Michigan, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Wisconsin.

All of which may be the case. But if it is true, why are the presidential campaigns, and much of official Washington, so seemingly obsessed by the impact of religion on this race? Maybe these swing-state undecideds in these heavily Catholic states have other things on their mind.

The Bush campaign sees maximizing turnout among regular church-goers as key to its strategy – a June 8 Gallop poll shows the president with an overwhelming lead among weekly church attendees. The Kerry effort, meanwhile, looks to neutralize the president’s advantage among the faithful by articulating religious themes, an awkward rhetorical dance for a party perceived, correctly or not, as the political embodiment of secularism.

Two examples prove the point:

-- Nearly 400 religious liberals gathered June 9 for a half-day kick-off of “The Faith and Progressive Policy project” of the Center for American Progress. The project aims to “educate the American public and the media about core values shared by progressive Americans of all faiths while simultaneously defending the separation of church and state and respecting secular society.” Center president and former Clinton Administration White House Chief of Staff John Podesta told the audience that “long before there was a Jerry Falwell or a Pat Robertson or even a Tom Delay, there was a Martin Luther King Jr., a Dorothy Day and an Abraham Heschel.  For them, justice and fairness in the community was inseparable from their faith in God. That's the real story of religion in American life and we're here to reclaim it."

-- President Bush’s lobbying of Vatican officials, reported last week by NCR Vatican correspondent John Allen, shows the lengths the White House will go to activate the conservative Catholic segment of its base. Bush told Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Vatican Secretary of State, and other Vatican officials that “not all the American bishops are with me” on cultural issues such as opposition to gay marriage and, it was inferred, embryonic stem cell research and abortion. What exactly Bush would have the bishops do (deny John Kerry communion?) is unclear, though there’s no lack of speculation. "It is just unprecedented for a president to ask for help from the Vatican to get re-elected, and that is exactly what this is," Americans United for Separation of Church and State president Barry Lynn told the New York Times.

And there’s more. Bush campaign efforts to use Pennsylvania churches as a base for voter outreach were condemned by Lynn and others; Kerry stammered through a C-Span interview in which he said he “personally” considered the Bible to be essential reading, though he wouldn’t force that view on others; and the Supreme Court ruled that “under God” stays in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Meanwhile, the U.S. bishops are meeting secretly this week in Denver – no public or press allowed. Among the items on their agenda is what their task force on “Catholics in Public Life” should say and whether they should say it before or after the election.  

Who knows? Maybe this election will be about more than the economy and Iraq.


It’s clear (see above) that religion and politics can’t be separated, but what about church and state? That was among the topics considered last week by the Senate’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Property Rights at a hearing titled "Beyond the Pledge of Allegiance: Hostility to Religious Expression in the Public Square ".

“…too many of us have forgotten that the First Amendment limits government conduct only,” Notre Dame University law school professor Richard Garnett told the panel. “The First Amendment’s Establishment Clause is not a sword, driving private religious expression from the marketplace of ideas; rather, the Clause constrains government, precisely to serve as a shield, and to protect religiously motivated speech and action,” said Garnett.

Garnett took issue with a recent California Supreme Court decision which upheld a state law requiring Catholic Charities and other church-affiliated non-profits to provide contraceptive coverage to employees as part of their prescription drug benefit plans. California, said Garnett, “has imposed on religious communities like the Catholic Church an ideology of radically privatized religion.”

J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, took a different view.

“…we do not and should not have a naked public square,” said Walker. “Religious speech in public places by private citizens is commonplace; candidates for office routinely voice religious themes and language; and even public officials revel in various forms of civil religion with near impunity. In fact, far from a naked public square, it is actually dressed to the nines.”

Other highlights: A frequenter of a government-funded senior citizens center bemoaned a crack-down on prayer before meals at the facility; a Jewish public school parent described his outrage at being asked to join in “The Lord’s Prayer” at the start of a Florida school board meeting; former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore defended his decision to post the 10 Commandments in the State Judicial building.

Judiciary Committee ranking member Patrick Leahy (D-VT), meanwhile, saw the hearing as one more grab for partisan advantage. “In light of recent events, one might expect that a Senate subcommittee charged with ensuring civil rights would be holding oversight hearings on our government’s controversial interrogation tactics,” said Leahy. “Yet today’s hearing is the latest in a series of hearings on matters seemingly chosen not for their legislative urgency but because of their great political significance to some members of the Republican Party.”

Politics, it seems, is never far away when church and state are discussed.

The e-mail address for Joe Feuerherd is

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