Religion's Influence Grows in Politics; but Are Evangelicals Doing Their Duty to Promote Morals, or Blurring Lines between Church and State?

Article excerpt

Byline: JEFF BRUMLEY and DAVID DeCAMP, The Times-Union

State legislators called them "The God Squad" -- one man each from the state Christian Coalition, the Florida Catholic Conference and the Jacksonville-based Florida Baptist Convention. They appeared in the visitors' galleries in the Legislature about five years ago, watching, listening and taking notes.

Former House Speaker John Thrasher of Orange Park remembers the three, although not all by name, watching closely as Republicans supported their causes during high-profile debates on issues such as abortion.

"They were very interested, and there was a lot of activity at that time," said Thrasher, now a Tallahassee lobbyist. "A lot of the issues were kind of no-brainers for them and us, particularly crime issues, and they were really getting involved in the process."

Today, some say what began with The God Squad has grown larger, more influential and more involved in the political process.

Whether that's good or bad depends on who is being asked.

Some Democrats and Republicans say the rise of Florida's religious conservatives is potentially dangerous because it threatens to erode traditional church-state separations. But members of those groups say they are simply doing what they have the right to do: getting organized and involved in issues of importance to them.

The spread of faith-based programs, the slew of faith-related bills in the Legislature, voters' appeal to moral values in the 2004 election, the initiatives to ban same-sex marriage and the Terri Schiavo case are just some of the examples of the religious tone seen recently in Florida politics.

A FOOTHOLD IN POLITICS

The Rev. Hayes Wicker sees what is happening in Florida as part of a national trend likely to have long-term effects.

"There's an almost nationwide sense among evangelicals that our country has deteriorated in its values and that we have to turn back the tide," said Wicker, pastor of a Naples Baptist church and president of the Florida Baptist Convention.

Wicker said he's hopeful the gains that religious conservatives in Florida and the nation have already made will stick and lead to "deep, systemic change." He said he saw the last presidential election as a sign of things to come.

President Bush's harnessing of so-called "values issues" helped him to get votes in his victory over John Kerry in 2004, according to polls. He created coalition groups for Catholics, evangelicals and other conservatives, using moral issues to make a large bid for religious conservatives' votes. Three-quarters of evangelical Protestants voted for Bush, according to a national 2,730-person poll by the University of Akron.

"It galvanized evangelical groups all over the country," Wicker said. "We realized it was time to make our voice known and heard."

State Sen. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville, said evangelicals gained their foothold in state politics the slow and steady way, as Republicans gradually took over the state House, Senate and governor's office in the 1990s.

That coincided with developments that began to stir religious conservatives, Wise said.

Those issues included court rulings that threatened the Pledge of Allegiance, Ten Commandments displays in schools and courthouses, and the movement in some states to allow same-sex marriage.

The religious community, Wise said, "began to look at their freedoms being eroded, and that began to awaken them that if they don't get involved, they'll lose more."

In Tallahassee, Gov. Jeb Bush's administration has steadily moved since 1999 to send public money to private schools -- many of which are faith-based -- through a voucher program. Bush has pushed for more scrutiny over abortions.

And the Catholic governor has established faith-based liaisons or programs in 13 state agencies, all working to break down traditional barriers between private groups and public money. …