A dangerous pattern of exploiting religion for political gain has emerged in this year's presidential campaign, a trend that must end immediately before it spirals out of control, according to Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
"These candidates and their cronies have turned this race into a holy war," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "This is the ugliest exploitation of religion for partisan purposes in modern political history. There were plenty of questionable campaign tactics early on, but they have escalated into sometimes vicious religious demagoguery. These fights risk causing interfaith damage that will linger on past the November election. They must stop now."
To highlight the dangerous pattern, Lynn cited multiple examples:
* Gov. George W. Bush kicked off his campaign in South Carolina with an appearance at Bob Jones University in South Carolina, a university that has banned interracial dating among its students, has called the pope the "Antichrist" and referred to the Catholic Church as a "satanic cult." Bush also caused an early campaign controversy by telling an Iowa debate audience that Jesus is his favorite political philosopher.
* TV preacher Pat Robertson, as part of an effort to support Bush's campaign, has weighed in heavily, using his Christian Coalition and Christian Broadcasting Network. Robertson defended Bush's appearance at Bob Jones on national television, and then bragged on his "700 Club" program that Christian Coalition Executive Vice President Roberta Combs organized every county in South Carolina, thus taking credit for Bush's primary victory. Robertson also organized a press conference the day before the South Carolina primary to denounce Warren Rudman, one of McCain's campaign chairmen, as a "vicious bigot" because of Rudman's criticism of the Religious Right. More recently, with a pre-recorded message, Robertson called thousands of Michigan residents, repeating his harsh attack on Rudman.
* Sen. John McCain's campaign placed thousands of phone calls to Catholic voters in Michigan, attempting to tie Bush to the anti-Catholic beliefs of Bob Jones University. First the campaign denied being involved with the calls, then later acknowledged being responsible for them.
* Sen. Robert Torricelli, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, apparently hoping to compound Bush's embarrassment from the appearance at Bob Jones University, announced that he will introduce a congressional resolution to condemn the school's religious beliefs.
* Pat Buchanan, seeking the Reform Party nomination, opined that he knew the "true faith" (Christianity) and said he "would like all folks to come to it."
* Multiple churches have also been drawn into the religious strife surrounding the campaign. Despite federal tax law that prohibits houses of worship from intervening in political campaigns, Vice President Al Gore appeared at Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church in New York on Feb. 13, and was endorsed from the pulpit by the church's pastor, the Rev. Floyd Flake. Similarly, the Rev. E.L. Branch at Third New Hope Missionary Baptist Church in Detroit told his congregation on Feb. 20 that they could help disrupt Michigan's GOP primary by voting for McCain.
* Vice President Al Gore has made religion a centerpoint of his campaign. As Elaine Kamarck, one of Gore's top advisors, told a newspaper last summer, "The Democratic Party is going to take God back this time." Additionally Gore has repeatedly told reporters that he is a born-again Christian who often asks himself 'what would Jesus do?'
Observed AU's Lynn, "Right now in Iran voters are trying to separate religion and politics. Unfortunately, here in the United States, we appear to be going in the opposite direction.
"Late last year, I voiced concerns about this trend," Lynn concluded. "Now we're seeing how divisive this issue can be. All the presidential campaigns should immediately drop this tactic from their political bag of tricks."
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.