Thursday, September 16, 2004

Does John Kerry Pass the Faith Test?

John Kerry has no faith. George Bush has too much faith. So we hear from pundits religious and secular, Republican and Democrat. But Luis Lugo of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life adds more grist for the mill in his article in this morning’s Miami Herald. Jim Wallis, social activist, evangelical preacher, and founder/editor of Sojourners Magazine is afraid of Bush’s theology of empire in his article from the online edition.

Politics can bring out the worst in Christians. Just ask James L. Evans, pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Alabama. He's been following a scary Orwellian tactic used by Christians to make sure churches aren't endorsing any (or the wrong) candidate and reports in an article for "Sightings" sponsored by the Martin Marty Centre:

In Kansas, a group known as the Mainstream Coalition is outraged by churches who openly endorse candidates for office. According to published IRS guidelines, organizations granted tax-free status under federal law "may not participate at all in campaign activity for or against political candidates." In an effort to force these churches to comply with the law, the Mainstream Coalition is enlisting volunteers who will regularly attend conservative churches during the campaign. These undercover visitors will witness and record instances of church services being used for politicking.

The news of monitoring church services has stirred some concern in the local faith community. According to a news story in The Kansas City Star (July 31, 2004), a group of pastors reacted strongly to the Mainstream Coalition's plan to monitor church services for potentially improper political activity. "We are alarmed at such scare tactics," said Ad Hoc Pastors for Biblical Values in a written statement. "These are the methods of coercive rulers. There is no place for this type of intimidation by 'secret police' in our land."

The Mainstream Coalition responded with a warning that churches need to keep partisan politics away from the pulpit. A spokesperson for the group said, "If they're not doing anything wrong, they shouldn't be worried about anything. Our goal is not to intimidate anyone. Our goal, which I think we've achieved to some degree, is to raise public awareness about this issue."

Meanwhile, in Fredericksburg, Virginia, a conservative group calling themselves the Big Brother Church Watch is sending volunteers throughout Virginia to sit in liberal church pews and take notes. This group wants to make sure everyone is playing by the same rules. If conservative churches are at risk of losing their tax exempt status by engaging in partisan politics, then liberal churches should be equally at risk if they endorse candidates. Peggy Birchfield, spokeswoman for the Brothers, said, "You tend to hear more about the conservatives, but no one is checking the liberal churches." In particular, the Brothers are keeping an eye on Metropolitan Community churches, Unitarian Universalist fellowships, and African Methodist Episcopal churches.

It's hard to estimate, at this point, just how much these clandestine worshipers will add to church attendance during the campaign season. Reports from both groups seem to indicate that the monitors will be going out two by two. But from small seeds come mighty weeds. Monitoring pairs could easily become monitoring teams. We could witness the rise of monitoring communities. What begins as a tiny mission effort of a faithful few could eventually become a mass movement -- they may even establish their own college.


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