Church, State and the 108th Congress: Church-State Separation Advocates Expect an Onslaught of Hostile Legislation in the Wake of the 2002 Elections

By Benen, Steve | Church & State, December 2002 | Go to article overview

Church, State and the 108th Congress: Church-State Separation Advocates Expect an Onslaught of Hostile Legislation in the Wake of the 2002 Elections


Benen, Steve, Church & State


The Rev. Gary Bergel took a keen interest in the 2002 elections.

Just days before voters went to the polls, Bergel, head of a Leesburg, Va.-based Religious Right group called Intercessors for America, issued a statement addressing what he described as "the critical nature of the hour." Urging "all concerned Christians" to "unite in concerted prayer and fasting," he listed a series of political campaigns that needed divine intervention.

But Bergel did more than that. His tax-exempt group also steered its followers to the Capitol Hill Prayer Alert Committee Election Fund, a political action committee that offers financial support and political endorsements to candidates that embrace the Religious Right's agenda. According to the PAC's materials, the Fund exists in part to "oppose ungodly endeavors and campaigns."

A week later, Bergel issued another statement. This one, distributed the day after the election, boasted of the success he and other Religious Right leaders had helped generate on behalf of favored Republican candidates.

"While an answer to prayer would have been the maintaining of a GOP majority of the House of Representatives ... the Lord went way beyond and granted a shift in the U.S. Senate, and placed additional pro-life Governors in a number of states," Bergel said.

It's hard to say what role Bergel's prayer and fasting had in convincing God to help Republican candidates, but the work of groups such as his contributed to a GOP victory in November. He was one of many giddy Religious Right figures issuing hallelujahs Nov. 6.

Within hours of daybreak the day after the election, right-wing religious leaders representing supposedly non-partisan organizations were stepping up to praise the victories of Republicans and the party's new majority in the U.S. Senate.

Jerry Falwell, for example, said, "[I]t is apparent that the American people want the Republicans to get down to brass tacks in terms of addressing the chief political concerns that face our nation." Ken Connor, head of the Family Research Council (FRC), said Nov. 5 was a "remarkable night for the GOP," and said the results were "a significant victory for our pro-family issues."

These "pro-family issues," many of which have been more common on Religious Right wish lists than actual legislative calendars in recent years, may soon be front-and-center agenda items when the 108th Congress convenes in January. With Religious Right-backed candidates winning several key races on Election Day, the movement suddenly finds itself with allies controlling the House, Senate and White House. Advocates of church-state separation can therefore expect a barrage of hostile legislation to be considered--and possibly signed into law--over the course of the next two years.

As a spokesman for James Dobson's Focus on the Family explained, a GOP congressional majority simply makes it easier for the Religious Right to push its agenda with less opposition.

"What [the success of GOP candidates] means is that the pro-family, pro-life legislation that was blocked in the Senate this session can be brought up next session with the knowledge that they will pass both houses and be signed by President Bush," said David Varnam, a policy analyst for the group. "That means we can get a partial-birth abortion ban, confirm conservative judges and not allow bad legislation to come up."

The FRC's Connor agreed. While he advised "guarded optimism," Connor said the Republicans' success in November "means that we can expect the GOP to advance the social issues agenda."

Many of the same goals that the Religious Right has been imploring Congress to act on will almost certainly receive ample attention. A ban on so-called "partial birth" abortion, for example, often considered the Religious Right's most emphasized issue, is already generating promises of action from the man slated to replace Tom Daschle as Senate majority leader. …

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