An article on the front-page of the June 3 New York Times was scary. It notes that the Bush campaign is reaching out to thousands of churches around the country to involve them in distributing campaign fliers and registering voters on behalf of the president’s November run. The move makes history. It seems that at no time in the nation’s experience has a candidate for president made an open appeal to churches to start acting like political clubs.
In 1928, when New York Governor Alfred Smith, the first serious Roman Catholic candidate, ran for the presidency, he did have the backing of many Catholics. But he did not call upon the Catholic churches to distribute his campaign literature or to get out the vote on his behalf.
There are sound reasons that he — and others — did not. Churches are tax-exempt organizations. Any organization — church or nonchurch — that participates actively in a political campaign automatically loses its tax exemption. What’s more, the cardinal American principle of separation of church and state makes the active recruitment of churches to back a candidate something much less than “separation.”
While Bush seems to be unaware of these problems, many church leaders are not. Some of them, including conservative-minded clerics, already have warned their associates not to pollute piety with politics.
However, the Bush administration has, so far, stuck by its guns. In the New York Times article, Steve Schmidt, a spokesman for the Bush campaign, explains: “People of faith have as much right to participate in the political as any other community.” He also notes that the use of e-mail to carry the message for this drive is “building the most sophisticated grass-roots presidential campaign in the country’s history.”
While the Bush push is under attack by both liberals and some conservatives, inside and outside the American churches, there is another aspect of the question that makes the Bush move doubly dangerous. As is well known, the Bush administration has been contributing government funds to “faith-based” charities. Does that mean that any church — no matter how tiny, no matter its denomination — would be entitled automatically to federal funding? Obviously not. If they were, then thousands of churches, launched by who knows whom, would crowd the gravy train. Someone in the government has to decide which faith-based organizations are deserving and which are not. Would a church that refuses to back Bush get the same favorable treatment as a church that signs up to back him?
Now let’s put the pieces together. The U.S. Department of the Treasury, under Bush’s prompting, donates money to a church. That church uses the money to campaign for Bush. So, in effect, Bush is using government money to campaign for Bush, and he does so through a church whose job it is to “launder” the dirty money.