Ties Tighten between Religion and Politics ; Lawmakers Form a 'Faith-Based' Caucus, While Churches Clarify Role in National Affairs

Article excerpt

America, despite its signature wall of separation between church- state, is also a place where religion and politics are often deeply entwined - a phenomenon rarely more in evidence than in the current election cycle.

The signs go beyond a presidential race in which a "religion gap" is seen by pollsters as a crucial divide for Democratic candidate John Kerry to close.

Consider that in just the past week:

* A bipartisan group of lawmakers this week launched a "faith- based caucus" of House members who back efforts to make it easier for federal grants to reach church-affiliated social programs.

* At a retreat in Denver, the US Association of Catholic bishops considered how far to use denial of communion as a goad to pressure politicians of the faith to vote in line with church doctrine.

* A national group of evangelical Christians pondered their role in national affairs - and whether their alignment and influence should be less closely tied to the Republican Party.

Such efforts to navigate the intersection of faith and politics are reaffirming America's uniqueness as the most religious of Western democracies - and are helping to shape high-profile debates over issues ranging from school vouchers to stem-cell research.

It's a level of religiosity in public life that would be anathema in any European capital, but is deeply rooted in America.

"This country is the most religious developed democracy in the world," says pollster Celinda Lake. "On the one hand, Americans want separation of church and state, but on the other they feel comfortable with 'In God we trust' and 'One nation under God.' It's a core value."

All this doesn't necessarily portend a heightened influence of religion in public life. Indeed, leaders promoting faith-based initiatives are reacting to what they see as growing secularization in a society rooted in consumerism and a celebrity.

For House members who launched a faith-based caucus Wednesday, a key motive was to put the spiritual capacities of churches to work on social problems such as poverty and substance abuse.

"The vast majority of Americans - Democrats and Republicans alike - believe that government could be working more effectively with faith-based and community groups dedicated to improving their communities," said a bipartisan group of lawmakers at the launch of the caucus, formally called the Community Solutions and Initiatives Coalition.

Poverty and other social ills create "very deep wounds in this country that need healing," says Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin at the launch. "But we need foot soldiers in Congress to make sure it does not get tied up in partisan politics."

But there are also deep concerns on both sides of the church/ state divide that that such ties can bind. …