Religion, Politics Crisscross; as the Election Heats Up, Houses of Worship Are Having to Walk a Tightrope

Article excerpt

Byline: DAVID DECAMP, The Times-Union

In a heated election season, the relationship between religion and politics has reached a new intensity.

Stark disagreements over abortion, gay marriage and faith-based politicking have highlighted disputes that often fall along the partisan lines of Republican President Bush and Democratic opponent John Kerry. Churches toe the hazy line between legally allowed activism and prohibited support for specific candidates.

Houses of worship are banned from supporting or opposing specific candidates, risking loss of tax-exempt status if they do. But religious leaders in Jacksonville and nationally often say they are compelled to speak out on issues of morality and ethics that cross into politics, which is legal but opens them up to criticism.

Americans United and other groups promoting separation of church and state have pushed churches to stay out of politics, questioning government faith-based funding programs and other legislation that some religious conservatives relish. Americans United executive director, the Rev. Barry Lynn, warned Tuesday against an amendment banning gay marriage -- a Senate vote is expected today -- noting "even bringing this amendment up for a vote has been incredibly divisive."

The public can be conflicted, too. A poll last year showed a slim majority of Americans liked or wanted more expressions of faith by politicians but often expressed unease when they heard actual statements from them, according to the the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, a non-partisan research group in Washington.

The issues and election this year have increased the tension, which can be traced back in recent history to President Jimmy Carter's expression of faith almost 30 years ago. Now Bush mentions his faith in making key decisions.

" I would think what this election does is not really forge a new dynamic but continue the same track we were on," Pew Director Luis Lugo said.

COMPETING FOR NICHE VOTERS

The presidential contest also is very close in polls in Florida and elsewhere, and few people appear undecided. Bush, a born-again Methodist, and the Catholic Kerry are competing for niches of voters. The next president very well could pick the Supreme Court justice who swings the court toward or away from banning abortion.

That's partially why the Republican National Committee recently had a Catholic voter outreach meeting for Duval County volunteers. In it, former Major League Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn said Bush matched Catholic teachings more than Kerry, who supports abortion rights. That stance has put Kerry at odds with some Catholics and their leaders, some of whom have said he should not receive Communion.

Catholics supported Democrat Al Gore over Bush by 49 to 47 percent in 2000, according to exit polls. Bush, however, won among the most-frequent churchgoers, and the Republican Party wants to increase their turnout to win. As large segment of the population, Catholics represent an ultimate swing vote, Lugo said.

"If we just reach out to our fellow churchgoing Catholics, get them registered to vote and educated on the issues, Sen. Kerry is going to be looking for a new job in January," said Martin Gillespie, the Republication National Committee's Catholic outreach coordinator.

Other religious groups see their flocks more attentive to the election. After the election troubles of 2000, black churches in Florida have taken leadership roles and some have increased registration efforts. Traditionally, those churches have been almost-required stops for candidates seeking African-American votes. Kerry has made several visits to black churches.

Following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the related law enforcement scrutiny and war in Iraq, Muslims are more engaged this year, said Parvez Ahmed of Jacksonville, chairman of the Florida chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. …