WASHINGTON (ABP) — Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry's increasingly prominent habit of using politically sympathetic churches as a platform for campaign speeches is drawing criticism — though for differing reasons — from groups on both the ideological right and the left.
President Bush's re-election campaign came under fire earlier in the year when news reports revealed that campaign officials were attempting to use conservative-leaning congregations to obtain church directories for mailing lists — and encouraging pastors of such congregations to use their pulpits to endorse Bush positions.
Supporters of church-state separation denounced the tactic, with some Christian leaders going so far as to buy full-page advertisements in the New York Times and other newspapers to do so.
Now the Kerry campaign is enduring criticism for using churches to hold what amounts to political rallies during Sunday morning services in African-American and other Democratic-leaning churches. Many conservatives have long accused liberals of hypocrisy for engaging in the practice.
After the Massachusetts senator spoke in his second African-American Baptist church in as many weeks Oct. 17, the conservative Family Research Council — often a Kerry antagonist — sent him a letter asking him to join with them in support of a controversial bill now stalled in Congress.
H.R. 235, the “Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act,” has languished in the House for more than two years, despite strong support from the Religious Right. It would allow churches and other houses of worship to endorse political parties and candidates while still maintaining their tax-exempt status under Section 501(c)(3) of the federal tax code. It has failed even to gain a sponsor in the Senate.
“As you quoted from the Book of James yesterday, 'Words without deeds are meaningless.' So I hope one of your first deeds when you return to Congress will be to introduce a Senate version of the Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act,” wrote Connie Mackey, the group's vice president for government affairs. “Family Research Council looks forward to working with you to protect the freedom of speech for churches and other places of worship.”
However, in an Oct. 21 telephone interview, Mackey admitted she thought Kerry was unlikely to respond to the request. Most Democrats have strongly opposed the bill out of church-state concerns.
Groups advocating church-state separation, such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State, also oppose the bill. An AU spokesman criticized Kerry and the churches for getting involved in partisan politics.
“We believe all houses of worship should play by the same rules, whether they're liberal-leaning or conservative-leaning,” said Rob Boston, the Washington-based group's director of communications. “I think Sen. Kerry and the Democratic Party do need to be aware that their actions are placing houses of worship in jeopardy. There is a long tradition of Democratic candidates politicking in African-American churches, but the fact that it has been going on a long time doesn't make it right.”
On Oct. 11, AU asked the Internal Revenue Service to investigate a Miami church for seeming to endorse Kerry when the candidate gave a similar speech there Oct. 10. “This year alone, we've reported three black churches for endorsing John Kerry from the pulpit,” Boston said.
Mackey — echoing charges made previously by many Religious Right groups — accused AU of hypocrisy and said its criticism of churches for seeming to endorse liberal candidates in the past was “new news. They have never bothered with the other side, with people from the Democratic Party,” she said.
“These letters to the IRS are a cover for what has been their practice, which is … to turn a blind eye to what has been going on in mostly black churches in the past,” Mackey continued.
But Boston said AU first began to criticize churches and candidates for having too cozy a political relationship in 1988 — in response to an African-American Democratic presidential hopeful.
“We've actually been interested in this issue for a long time,” Boston said. “It was Jesse Jackson's activities back during the 1988 race that first got us interested in this issue of church endorsements.”
Officials from the Kerry campaign did not return a message requesting comment for this story by press time.