The gospel according to Karl

Bush's mastermind Karl Rove is going all-out to mobilize an army of Christian soldiers to carry the president to the Promised Land in November. But will mainstream churches rebel?

Published July 6, 2004 2:40PM (EDT)

Winning the souls, or at least the votes, of conservative evangelical Christians is central to the Republican Party strategy under President Bush. But when Republican congressional leaders last month tried to push through the House Ways and Means Committee a top priority for evangelical Christians -- an easing of Internal Revenue Service rules barring preachers from using their tax-exempt pulpits to endorse political candidates -- it suffered a surprising setback. Although House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and other prominent Republicans backed the tax law change, there was one problem: The committee chairman wasn't on board.

Rep. Bill Thomas, the cantankerous California Republican who chairs the tax-writing panel, stunned the House leadership by derailing its attempt to attach the controversial change in the tax law to an unrelated bill, the Hill newspaper reported. It's not clear whether Thomas objected to the substance of the provision, which opponents have decried as a violation of church-state separation, or whether he was just being ornery. His spokeswoman said she didn't know the details, and Thomas could not be reached for comment. But for White House political chief Karl Rove, who has staked victory in President Bush's campaign on turning out evangelical voters in November, the incident underscored the precarious nature of his strategy.

With Democrats revved up to defeat Bush, independents leaning toward Democrat John Kerry, moderate Republicans turning away from the party and many gay Republicans having left it altogether, it's now more important than ever for the White House to get its conservative evangelical voter base to the polls. And if Republicans can't change the law preventing churches from devoting tax-exempt resources to partisan politics, the Bush-Cheney reelection effort appears ready to stretch the rules as far as possible. The campaign recently asked religious volunteers across the country to hand over their churches' directories for the Bush-Cheney database and to distribute pro-Bush "voter guides," prompting an outcry from religious leaders. Even Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's ethics and religious liberty commission and a prominent Bush supporter, recoiled at the idea of churches becoming directly involved in a political campaign. "I am appalled," Land said in a statement. "I suspect that this will rub a lot of pastors' fur the wrong way ... It's one thing for a church member motivated by exhortations to exercise his Christian citizenship to go out and decide to work on the Bush campaign or the Kerry campaign. It's another, and totally inappropriate for a political campaign, to ask workers who may be church members to provide church member information through ... directories."

The Rev. Welton Gaddy, president of the liberal Interfaith Alliance, also condemned the Bush campaign's blurring of religion and politics. "I understand the strategy. Given the closeness of the divide in the nation, each campaign is looking for every advantage possible. And there really is no more powerful motivator than that of religious passion," he said. "So if you can capture the passion of a religious community and channel that into allegiance for your candidate, you've made great inroads on getting new voters.

"But there's a difference in what's best for a campaign and what's best for religion in this nation," Gaddy added. "I'm frankly concerned that an administration that has talked so eloquently about the importance of houses of worship would be willing to intrude on the sanctity of houses of worship and compromise them by seeking to turn them into political organizations."

After the 2000 election, Rove lamented in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington that only 15 million evangelical voters had gone to the polls -- 4 million fewer than expected. This disappointing turnout helped explain the close election, Rove said. Looking ahead, he vowed to pursue policies that would motivate evangelicals in 2004 -- specifically, the white conservative Protestants who overwhelmingly support Bush.

Yet it's unclear whether those mythical 4 million stay-at-home evangelical voters from 2000 -- assuming they can be motivated to go to the polls in sufficient numbers in November -- will make the difference that Rove believes. University of Akron political scientist John Green, an expert on the religious right, says it's possible those people didn't vote in 2000 because they lived in states like Texas and Mississippi, where pro-Bush outcomes were never in doubt. Rove's challenge now, Green says, is to find the right set of issues to get evangelicals in battleground states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and Florida to the polls. "The White House is relying more and more on evangelicals because the election is looking really close," Green said. "But finding and motivating evangelical voters is not as easy as you might expect."

Other efforts outside the campaign are targeting young evangelicals. Voter-turnout programs such as Vote Loud and Redeem the Vote hope to do for the Republican Party what the MTV-sponsored Rock the Vote project did for Democrats in 1992. According to an account in the Guardian, Bush received an indirect endorsement last month at a Christian rock festival from actor Stephen Baldwin, the younger brother of Alec. "I don't care if I ever shoot a movie again," Baldwin said from the stage of the Creation Festival in western Pennsylvania, "because the day I accepted Jesus into my life I was blessed." Baldwin, the festival's keynote speaker, continued: "Now, I don't want to tell you who you should vote for in November. But make sure it's for the one who has the most faith. Now, more than ever, we need someone in the White House who is being led by God."

The White House's strategy for winning the votes of evangelicals has several components. It includes the faith-based initiative to spread public money to religious charities. And it includes controversial moves such as the recess judicial appointment of a fundamentalist Roman Catholic, William Pryor, to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals after Democrats had blocked his nomination. Pryor is the former Alabama attorney general and strongly antiabortion. (This conflict generated the bizarre spectacle of conservative Protestant Republicans attacking liberal Catholic Democrats on the Judiciary Committee for somehow discriminating against Pryor because he's Catholic.) But the centerpiece of the Republican strategy is the proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.

The amendment is the kind of wedge social issue that Republicans have exploited profitably in the past, and Rove appears to have made careful political calculations. Although the amendment has infuriated many -- if not most -- of the estimated 1 million gay Republicans who voted for Bush in 2000, the insult is not expected to significantly damage Bush at the polls. Gay Republicans are too scattered geographically to be a factor in the 19 battleground states, and they mostly live in East Coast and West Coast states that are likely to end up in Kerry's column anyway. Moderate Republicans aren't happy with the emphasis on this divisive social issue, but if they abandon Bush, it's more likely to be over the conduct of the Iraq war and record budget deficits.

Whether the amendment will have its intended effect of spurring large numbers of evangelicals to the polls in key swing states is uncertain. The strategy "is smartly developed," political scientist Green says. "But how well it's going remains to be seen. It's just not clear that it's going to come together."

Another wild card is how members of mainline churches and Christians who are not conservative will vote in November. In courting religious conservatives, Bush has chosen not to emphasize the broader Christian values that many Americans, regardless of party affiliation, share.

"Bush has shown an ideological commitment to the literalist Christian tradition at the expense of the broader view of the larger religious community," said the Rev. Bob Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, a mainline Protestant group. "He is the first president not to meet with the leadership of mainline Christian traditions since George Washington. We've been able to talk with the prime minister of Britain and the chancellor of Germany, but not our own president. And we would have had some positive things to say," Edgar said, mentioning Bush's $15 billion international HIV-AIDS prevention and treatment program. "But on moral questions, like the morality of going to war, we felt the president should have listened more carefully."

Evangelical Christians, who are distinguished by their belief that they must widely share their faith in Jesus Christ as savior, are estimated to make up 20 to 25 percent of the U.S. population. Although they are mostly white and conservative, they are not monolithic. Only 69 percent of them call themselves Republicans, according to a March poll by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research Inc. While evangelicals overwhelmingly oppose gay marriage, it's not necessarily a definitive issue: Only 48 percent of white evangelicals in the Greenberg survey said they would never consider voting for a candidate who supports homosexual marriage.

African-American Protestants, who are also sometimes called evangelicals because they share many of the same religious and moral beliefs as white evangelicals, constitute about 8 percent of the population. But they are fallow ground for Bush: 84 percent of religious African-Americans are Democrats, the Greenberg survey found.

Bush's strategy of wooing white religious conservatives in his base and key battleground states explains why Republicans continue to back losing issues like a 1998 law to restrict children's access to pornographic Web sites. Though it declined this week to strike down the law, the Supreme Court ruled for a third time that it violates free speech. The strategy also explains how Bush can wrap himself in the mantle of Ronald Reagan but ignore the pleas of his widow, Nancy, to support the embryonic stem cell research that might have led to treatment for the late president's Alzheimer's disease. Bush knows that evangelicals concerned with the sanctity of human life will not compromise on research that leads to destruction of human embryos.

Even a seemingly clear-cut issue like programs for the poor can become tangled up in the Republican strategy. Last year, the Republican governor of Alabama, Bob Riley, argued that Christians had a duty to support his proposed $1.2 billion tax hike and restructuring. Huge budget deficits threatened programs for the poor, Riley said, while the state's reliance on a regressive sales tax put the heaviest tax burden on the Alabamans with the least money. But staunch opposition from national Republican anti-tax groups and the Alabama Christian Coalition helped kill the proposal. Riley quickly moved to rehabilitate himself, appearing at a ceremony to unveil a plaque depicting the Ten Commandments at the State Capitol 10 days after a granite monument with the Ten Commandments had been removed from the rotunda of the state judicial building by order of the U.S. District Court.

The tax battle in Alabama, however, underscores a long-simmering frustration among many evangelicals over groups like the Christian Coalition taking positions that appear more rooted in the Republican Party platform than in Scripture. The sense that some religious organizations have lost their unique missions and become appendages of the GOP is behind a push by some evangelicals to refocus on the pursuit of biblical principles in public life.

Toward that end, the National Association of Evangelicals, a Washington lobbying group that represents more than 50 denominations and churches, both conservative and liberal, has drafted a document titled "For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility" that urges Christians to reject partisan labels. "Christianized versions of interest group politics during the last two decades of the twentieth century produced access without influence and discouraged many who had become engaged for the first time," said the draft, which will come before the association in October for final approval.

Joe Loconte, an expert on religion and politics at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, calls that language "a clear signal that some forms of political activity in the name of Christian conviction have just been inappropriate or unhelpful." An earlier form of the draft went further, stating that "evangelicals must guard against overidentifying Christian social goals with a single political party" -- an unmistakable reference to the GOP. But after the Los Angeles Times reported that such wording was under consideration, the passage was watered down to a more neutral warning against equating "Christian faith with partisan politics."

Loconte and other religious conservatives insist the change was intended to make clear that liberal evangelical groups -- such as Sojourners, which has worked with Democrats on social justice issues -- come equally close to confusing a biblically inspired mission with partisan politics. "The [problem] is, whether it's a group on the left or the right, they just become an echo chamber for one party or the other," Loconte says.

That explanation rings false, however. Ask average Americans which group they associate more with politics -- the Christian Coalition on the right or Sojourners on the left -- and their answer is likely to be: "What is Sojourners?" Clearly, there are more "Christianized versions of interest group politics," as the National Association of Evangelicals document described it, associated with the Republican Party than with the Democratic. And for the most part, that has worked to Bush's advantage, as groups such as the Traditional Values Coalition and Concerned Women for America have allied themselves with the GOP.

The National Council of Churches has published a list of "Christian Principles in an Election Year" that condemns war, poverty, environmental degradation and incivility in public and private life. But such progressive stands are expected of the mainline churches represented by the council. More representative of the struggle to balance politics and religion is the National Association of Evangelicals. The NAE has drafted a "call to civic responsibility" that affirms many Bush administration initiatives but implicitly questions others, from the invasion of Iraq to the White House's anti-environmental policies.

Because the document represents a consensus among liberals and conservatives, it could signal trouble ahead for the White House's strategy to get the votes of religious conservatives. While not referring to the Iraq invasion specifically, the draft says: "The peaceful settling of disputes is a gift of common grace. We urge governments to pursue thoroughly nonviolent paths to peace before resorting to military force. We believe that if governments are going to use military force, they must use it in the service of peace and not merely in their national interest."

The document also calls for helping the poor, protecting the environment and taking affirmative action to remedy the effects of racial discrimination -- progressive stances all. Significantly, it urges Christians to remember that their "primary allegiance is to Christ, his kingdom ... not to any nation," relevant in these days when small-town churches are flying U.S. flags alongside their "We Support Our Troops" signs.

Whether fissures in the evangelical movement will affect turnout for Bush by religious voters in November remains uncertain. But with the polls so close, the president is no doubt praying that Rove's strategy works -- and that Vice President Cheney keeps his potty mouth shut. And for insurance, Bush may want to lean on Ways and Means Chairman Thomas to pass that tax provision for churches. Prayers are nice, but a few endorsements from the pulpit would be better.

By Mary Jacoby

Mary Jacoby is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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