The Gospel According To Bill And Jerry

Are politicians and their clergy allies hell-bent on dragging religious institutions into partisan politics? They sure seem to be. Look at two events that occurred during the last couple of weeks.

On Aug. 29, Bill Clinton took to the pulpit of Riverside Church in New York City to deliver a sermon-cum-political speech. Although Clinton stopped short of urging the congregation to vote for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, his address was heavily political. Quoting scripture and offering commentary, the Southern Baptist former president criticized Republicans for distorting the truth about Kerry's war record and said the GOP convention in New York will show the Republicans' "once-every-four-years compassionate face."

Clinton also blasted the Religious Right for reducing "all those who disagree with them into two-dimensional cartoons." "Politics dictated by faith," he said, "is not the exclusive province of the right-wing."

Clinton was introduced at the Sunday service by Riverside Pastor James Forbes, who also singled out other Democratic dignitaries in the audience, including New York Democratic Chair Denny Farrell, U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and U.S. Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY).

The New York church service comes on the heels of an Aug. 24 Jerry Falwell appearance at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas.

Falwell's appearance was touted by the seminary in a press release that said he is "under fire from Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Internal Revenue Service for allegedly violating regulations which regulate church politicking."

In his "chapel" sermon to the seminarians, Falwell noted the presence of reporters and said, "The press is here today, expecting me to get into politics, which I'm not going to do - except to tell you to vote for the Bush of your choice."

Falwell also launched his same tired criticisms of Americans United and Americans United Executive Director Barry Lynn, who is both an attorney and a minister. "He's ordained," said the Lynchburg preacher, "by the United Church of Christ, which is slightly to the left of Gorbachev."

Before Falwell spoke, the Southern Baptist seminarians were treated to a talk by Tarrant County Republican Chair Pat Carlson, who insisted that the students register and vote and get their congregations involved in politics. "Do you realize," she said, "how different this country would be if every Christian voted? Our elected officials and our government policies would reflect biblical values."

Seminary President Paige Patterson seemed ready to do his part. He told the crowd the school is launching a voter registration effort among students. Voter registration tables, he said, would be set up outside the chapel throughout the following week.

Critics thought there was the distinct smell of partisanship about the event. Phil Strickland, director of the (moderate) Baptist General Convention of Texas Christian Life Commission, told the Associated Baptist Press that he is concerned the seminary might be placing its own tax exemption in jeopardy. It's okay to talk about issues, said Strickland, but religious groups have present a balanced view in contested political races.

"It will be interesting to see if Southwestern provides that required balance," he said.

The same thing could be said about Riverside Church in New York. Will that congregation invite Republican representatives over for a special Sunday service giving their viewpoint on world events?

Federal tax law forbids churches and other tax-exempt groups to intervene in elections on behalf of candidates. The IRS, however, does not generally regard candidate appearances in church to be evidence of a violation, if other candidates are given the same opportunity. At a minimum though, Clinton, Falwell and their accomplices have misused the pulpit to advance personal agendas. Both men could have uttered the same words in a nonreligious venue, and no one could have raised legal or ethical questions. A little repentance is clearly in order.