Originally published in the San Antonio Express-News, June 20, 2004
by Susan Ives

It started June 1, when the Pennsylvania arm of the Bush presidential campaign was asked to help identify 1,600 “friendly” houses of worship that might be willing to recruit volunteers to help distribute voter information.

The e-mail was leaked to the New York Times, and groups such as Americans United for the Separation of Church and State protested, claiming that religious groups would endanger their tax-exempt status if they engaged in political activities such as endorsing candidates or handing out partisan campaign material.

The Bush campaign responded that their intent was not to set up Bush-for-President clubs as alternatives to Sunday school classes. Their plan was legal and much more subtle.

Polls show that churchgoers are more likely to vote Republican than non-churchgoers. Ergo, the more religious people you register to vote, the more Republicans you’ll have at the polls on Nov. 2. No need to deliver a partisan message — just get out the vote and the demographics will take care of the rest.

I admit: I cringe when I think of millions of conservative Christians mobilizing to support Republican policies that make my skin crawl.

I admit: I lift up my voice and sing when I think of millions of liberal Christians in the 1950s and ’60s mobilizing to support long-overdue civil rights legislation.
Hellfire and damnation. I can’t have one without the other.

If the debate had ended there, it could have been dismissed as a partisan flap.

Enter Bill Thomas, R- Calif., chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, who tacked an amendment onto a pending high-tech jobs bill to loosen the IRS prohibition against religious groups engaging in partisan political campaigning. He called it the Safe Harbor for Churches bill.

Here’s the deal. Houses of worship would have been allowed to “accidentally” endorse candidates from the pulpit up to three times a year before their IRS tax exemption was jeopardized. Accidentally? Give me a break.

After an initial Republican lovefest, reality intruded. Everyone figured out that this ill-thought-out and poorly worded legislation would end up restricting religious speech even more than it is now. It was hastily withdrawn last week.

All this — from the initial campaign e-mail to the withdrawal of the three strikes amendment — happened in less than two weeks.

The phrase “separation of church and state” does not appear in the Constitution, which only guarantees in the First Amendment that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Rather, it originated in an 1802 letter written by Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut, quelling their fears that the new country was on the brink of establishing a state religion. Jefferson borrowed the metaphor of a wall of separation from a sermon by Baptist preacher Roger Williams, who warned that the garden of the church must be fenced off from the wilderness of the state.

When we try, perhaps with the best of intentions, to bring our faith into government we also open a gap in the fence that protects our faith from government intrusion. The wilderness invades. The garden is overrun.

Voices of faith should be welcome in the give-and-take of public discourse. Faith, our most deeply held values, even prayer, all have a place in the public arena. But those voices belong there as prophetic voices, not as a political ones.

Proposals such as the Safe Harbor act cross that line. Faith-based groups have no business endorsing candidates or donating money to political campaigns. They have no business being king makers. If they try, they will lose their souls.

The Republicans might be surprised. The same religiously inspired reverence for all life that has turned some churchgoers against abortion have turned others against the death penalty, against war, against torture, against greed, against lying.

So go ahead and mobilize the churches, mobilize the synagogues, the mosques, the temples. Mobilize the faithful. You might just be mobilizing the Democrats.

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