The Last Word

It was recently reported that the Bush campaign had e-mailed members of the clergy, soliciting help in identifying "friendly" congregations that would do the campaign's bidding in their areas. When the e-mail came to light, legal experts warned that any religious organization that endorsed one candidate over another could lose its tax-exempt status. A few days later, House Republicans added a measure to a tax bill working its way through Congress called the "Safe Harbor for Churches" act, which would allow any religious organization to make as many as three "unintentional" political endorsements in a calendar year without jeopardizing its tax-exempt status.

When questioned about all of this, Steve Schmidt, a spokesman for the Bush campaign, said, "The campaign wants people of faith to participate in the political process." Clearly, the Bushies want more than this. Because any exemption from paying taxes has the same economic value to its recipient as a direct subsidy from the government, the Bush campaign wants religious groups to enter the political fray -- with costs offset by the federal government. The reason, of course, is that the ground troops of the Bush campaign are America's religious right -- mostly right-wing evangelical Protestant churches, but also right-wing Southern Baptists, anti-abortion Catholics, and even a smattering of extreme pro-Israeli and anti-Arab Jews. For George W. Bush, firing up the troops means firing up "friendly" right-wing congregations.

The Constitution of the United States prohibits the federal government from enacting laws that promote or establish any religion. That's because the Framers understood the importance of keeping a strict separation between church and state. History has amply demonstrated how established religions undermine democracy. Citizens holding different beliefs from the majority, or no beliefs at all, are often disadvantaged, marginalized, or even ostracized. Government support tends to corrupt even an established religion whose leaders seek official favors in return for religious decrees and indulgences, and who do the government's bidding in return for state benefits.

In the United States, religious groups are exempted from paying taxes not because they are religious (that would violate the Constitution's establishment clause) but because they are nonprofit institutions, and, like all nonprofits, are barred from explicitly taking sides in a campaign. To enlist congregations in campaign activities is not at all like enabling individual "people of faith" to participate in politics; it's utilizing the privileged organizational capacity of religious institutions -- which should be barred from politics -- for expressly political purposes.

There is a larger pattern here. In its eagerness to promote the teaching of creationism in public schools, encourage school prayer, support anti-sodomy statutes, ban abortions, bar gay marriage, limit the use of stem cells, reduce access to contraceptives, and advance the idea of America as a "Christian nation," the Bush administration has done more to politicize religion than any administration in recent American history. It has already blurred the distinction between what is preached from the pulpits and what are the official policies of the United States government, to the detriment of both. Right-wing fundamentalists -- including not a few high-level Bush-administration officials -- charge us secularists with being "moral relativists" who would give equal weight to any moral precept. In so doing, they confuse politics with private morality. For religious zealots, there is no distinction between the two realms. And that is precisely the problem.

The great conflict of the 21st century may be between the West and
terrorism. But terrorism is a tactic, not a belief. The underlying
battle will be between modern civilization and anti-modernist fanatics;
between those who believe in the primacy of the individual and those who
believe that human beings owe blind allegiance to a higher authority;
between those who give priority to life in this world and those who
believe that human life is no more than preparation for an existence
beyond life; between those who believe that truth is revealed solely
through scripture and religious dogma, and those who rely primarily on
science, reason, and logic. Terrorism will disrupt and destroy lives.
But terrorism is not the only danger we face.

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