Blumenthal: Crossing the Church-State Line


Richard Moore


  Crossing the Church-State Line
 By Sidney Blumenthal

 Thursday 11 November 2004
Thomas Jefferson warned of the dangers of becoming a
"priest-ridden people," but a conservative clergy was
essential to Bush's victory.

The election of 2004 marks the rise of a quasi-clerical party
for the first time in the United States. Ecclesiastical
organization has become transformed into the sinew and muscle
of the Republican Party, essential in George W. Bush's
reelection. His narrow margins in the key states of Florida,
Iowa and Ohio, and elsewhere, were dependent upon the direct
imposition of the churches. None of this occurred suddenly or
by happenstance. Nor was this development simply a pleasant
surprise for Bush. For years, he has schooled himself in the
machinations of the religious right, and Karl Rove has used
the command center of the White House as more than its Office
of Propaganda.

Bush's clerisy represents an unprecedented alliance of
historically anti-Roman Catholic, nativist evangelical
Protestants with the most reactionary elements of the Catholic
hierarchy. Preacher, priest and politician have combined on
the grounds that John F. Kennedy disputed in his famous speech
before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on Sept.
12, 1960. Every principle articulated by Kennedy has been
flouted and contradicted by Bush: "I believe in an America
where the separation of church and state is absolute; where no
Catholic prelate would tell the President - should he be
Catholic - how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell
his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church
school is granted any public funds or political preference ...
where no public official either requests or accept
instructions on public policy from the Pope or ... any other
ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose
its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or
the public acts of its officials."

From the White House, Rove operated a weekly conference call
with selected religious leaders. Evangelical churches handed
over their membership directories to the Bush campaign for
voter registration drives. According to the Washington Post,
"clergy members attended legal sessions explaining how they
could talk about the election from the pulpit." A group
associated with the Rev. Pat Robertson advised 45,000 churches
on how to work for Bush. One popular preacher alone sent
letters to 136,000 pastors advising them on "non-negotiable"
issues - gay marriage, stem cell research, abortion - to
mobilize the faithful. Perhaps the most influential figure of
all was the Rev. James Dobson, whose radio programs are
broadcast daily on more than 3,000 stations and 80 TV
stations, and whose organization has affiliates in 36 states,
and this year created a political action committee to advance
"Christian citizenship."

On June 4, Bush traveled to see the pope. In another meeting
that day, with Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo
Sodano, according to a Vatican official, Bush "complained that
the U.S. bishops were not being vocal enough in supporting
[Bush] on social issues like gay marriage and abortion," and
suggested to Sodano that the Vatican "push the bishops."

The Vatican was astonished at the brazen pressure and did not
accede. Nonetheless, more than 40 conservative bishops worked
in league with the Bush campaign against John Kerry - part of
a crusade against their own declining moral authority. The
American church is in crisis as Catholic opinion on abortion
and stem cell research leans closer to that of the general
public. And the exposure of rampant pedophilia among priests
has undermined traditional belief in the church's sanctity.
Electing a liberal Catholic as president would have been a
severe blow. So conservative bishops denounced Kerry, spoke of
denying him Communion and even talked of excommunication.
Sunday after Sunday, from thousands of pulpits, epistles were
read and sermons delivered telling parishioners it was sinful
to vote for candidates who supported gay marriage and

The Catholic Kerry received 5 percent less of the Catholic
vote than the Southern Baptist Al Gore did four years ago. In
the crucial state of Ohio, where an anti-gay-marriage
initiative was on the ballot, Bush won two-thirds of the
"faithful" Catholic (those who attend mass every week) vote
and 55 percent of the Catholic total. Combined with the
support of 79 percent of white evangelicals, this gave him his
critical margin nationally and in the swing states.

The religious right is not a majority and hardly a "silent
majority," but it was indispensable to Bush's victory. Across
the country, it has become the most energetic, reliable and
productive part of the Republican organization. The ultimate
value in its values-based politics is power, just as it was
worldly power that sustained the medieval church, and the
assertion of that power began within days after the election.

When moderate Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania,
who is seeking the chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee,
said that he would oppose any nominee to the Supreme Court who
would seek to outlaw abortion (a nomination that might come
soon, as Chief Justice William Rehnquist is dying), Dobson
denounced Specter, "He is a problem and he must be derailed."
Who will rid the president of this troublesome senator? Almost
instantly, Specter clarified his position, announcing that he
meant no such thing and that he had supported many judges who
were against abortion.

"History, I believe," Thomas Jefferson wrote, "furnishes no
example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil
government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which
their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail
themselves for their own purposes."

 But we're not all Jeffersonians now.

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Richard Moore (rkm)
Wexford, Ireland

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