By E.J. Kessler

Published June 11, 2004, issue of June 11, 2004.
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The church-state issue is erupting in the presidential race, with a top White House aide speaking of a religious-secular “culture war” and the Bush re-election team launching a nationwide program to recruit religious congregations to distribute campaign material to voters.

Republican members of Congress, meanwhile, have introduced legislation to allow sectarian organizations to endorse candidates.

The developments angered several Jewish associations, which traditionally have sought a strict separation of religion and politics as the best guarantee of Jewish communal interests.

“It’s woefully inappropriate to target houses of worship, to turn them into partisan cauldrons,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, head of the liberal Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, in language that was echoed by other Jewish organizational officials.

“People aren’t going to know what all the rules about what activities are or are not allowed in church by the IRS and the [Federal Election Commission],” Saperstein said. “It will get possibly hundreds of congregations in violation of the law.”

Last week, news reports disclosed that Bush’s re-election campaign had sent an e-mail seeking “to identify 1,600 ‘Friendly Congregations’… where voters friendly to President Bush might gather on a regular basis” in the hotly contest- ed state of Pennsylvania. The e-mail solicited volunteers for purposes “such as distributing general information/updates or voter registration materials in a place accessible to the congregation,” prompting howls from advocates of church-state separation, who charged that Bush was trying to turn houses of worship into political operations.

Earlier in the week, on June 1, Bush signed an executive order extending his so-called faith-based initiative to three more federal agencies, praising the initiative in a speech at a Washington conference promoting the administration’s funding of religious groups’ social-service projects by describing a project in Allentown, Pa. In a speech at the same conference, the head of the White House’s Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives, Jim Towey, depicted the struggle of the administration and the critics of its faith-based initiative as a “culture war” between those who support “faith in the public square” and those who would create “a godless orthodoxy.”

This week, Rep. Bill Thomas, a California Republican, inserted a provision into a bill on corporate taxes that would allow religious organizations to make a certain number of political endorsements without affecting their tax-exempt status. Critics charged that the measure was timed to aid the president’s re-election bid. Similar legislation introduced last year, the Houses of Worship Freedom of Speech Restoration Act, has languished in Congress.

The mixing of religion and politics is not new. Both Democrats and Republicans long have sought voters among religious groups and platforms at sectarian organizations, with Democrats spreading their message through black churches and Republicans hooking up with Evangelical Christians and groups associated with the Christian right. Candidates and their surrogates often speak at synagogues and at Jewish charitable federations. Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, for example, spoke at an Iowa synagogue during the winter; Vice President Dick Cheney recently addressed the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County in an event organized jointly by his office and the Bush-Cheney ’04 campaign.

Critics in the Jewish community, however, said that the Bush campaign had crossed a line with its e-mail seeking to mobilize friendly congregations. The campaign drew criticism from the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the main public-policy umbrella of Jewish organizations. Jewish associations, including the right-leaning Orthodox Union, which supports Bush’s faith-based initiative, also have fought measures — similar to Thomas’s “Safe Harbor for Churches” bill — that allow for endorsements by religious groups and congregations.

In a sign of the growing societal schisms over church-state issues, Towey’s comment drew no fire from Jewish communal leaders, with several arguing that his comments were merely descriptive — and accurate. Just a dozen years ago, conservative presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan’s summons to a “culture war” against liberalism drove many voters away from the Republican Party, but this week, partisans on both sides of the aisle said that Towey’s comments were legitimate.

While Towey, a Democrat who was the lawyer for the late Mother Teresa of Calcutta, sought to distance his work and his “culture war” remark from the presidential campaign, Republicans acknowledge that they are trawling for votes among the most religious voters, many of whom stayed home in 2000.

“The goal is that they should be reaching out to social conservatives, conservative Catholics, Protestants but also Orthodox Jews,” said Marshall Breger, a law professor at Catholic University who was President Reagan’s liaison to the Jewish community.

The Bush campaign defended its outreach e-mail by saying that it was seeking to involve individuals, not congregations, in the political process.

“We respect the letter of the law, and we are in no way implying that people should gather at their places of worship to conduct political activity,” spokeswoman Sharon Castillo wrote in an e-mail. “But we are encouraging individual-to-individual contact among people who share the same faith and who support this President.”

Ethan Felson, assistant executive director of the JCPA, labeled the Republican moves a “troubling trend.”

“In a highly politicized environment, it is important that all candidates and campaigns respect the requirements that nonprofits, including houses of worship, not become political machines,” he said.

Nathan Diament, head of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs, said that “there’s nothing wrong” with a campaign using congregations “as a means of identifying people, in the same way as a ZIP code,” but “synagogues should not be used as a conduit for campaign literature. That’s abundantly clear.” He said his organization has “concerns” about Thomas’s bill.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, called the campaign’s initiative “crude” and said that while he doesn’t believe that Thomas’s bill will pass, it is “stepping over the line… of civic norms separating church and state.”

The Kerry campaign said it would not be soliciting voters in ways that could compromise their houses of worship.

“This effort by the Bush campaign to manipulate churches by drawing them into partisan politics shows nothing but disrespect for the religious community,” said Mara Vanderslice, Kerry’s director of religious outreach, in a statement. “The Bush campaign seems to show no concern for the fact that the churches they recruit could lose their tax-exempt status. Although the Kerry campaign actively welcomes the participation of religious voices in our campaign, we will never court religious voters in a way that would jeopardize the sanctity of their very houses of worship.”

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