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From AUcorbin@aol.com Thu Aug 24 07:31:33 2000
Date: Wed, 23 Aug 2000 21:34:45 -0500 (CDT)
Subject: AU Press Clipping: Religion & Politics -- and -- Prayer at Football Games
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Article: 103244
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Religion, politics becoming uneasy mix, some say; Policy issues taking a back seat to piety

By Miles Benson, The New Orleans Times-Picayune,
20 August 2000

The 2000 presidential election could be Thomas Jefferson's worst nightmare. Jefferson, the Democratic Party's founder, warned Americans about political leaders who preach about religion.

He wrote his clear, strong views on religion's place in politics into a model law on religious liberty, denouncing "the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men ... setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible."

More than 200 years later, Jefferson's concerns have special resonance in a presidential race in which Democrat Al Gore, a Southern Baptist who often talks about his devout faith, has picked for his vice presidential running mate Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the first Jew on a major party's national ticket, who talks intensely about his own religious beliefs.

Lieberman, who told a gathering of Black Caucus members in Los Angeles that he is "a very frustrated preacher," invoked God a dozen times in his first public speech after Gore invited him to join the ticket.

Opposing them are Republican Gov. George W. Bush, who calls Christ his favorite political philosopher and who proclaimed last June 10 "Jesus Day" in Texas, and his vice presidential running mate, former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney. The Republican ticket is depending heavily on support from the religious right.

Add to that the ongoing religious arguments over school prayer, abortion, gay rights and moral values in general, and you have a mix that is raising concerns among partisans on each side and independent outside observers.

President, not pastor

Adopted in Virginia, Jefferson's statute said, "No man shall be compelled to support any religious worship, place or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall suffer on account of his religion, opinions or belief, but that all men shall be free to profess their opinions in matters of religion."

It's all too much for Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State and a minister in the United Church of Christ.

"We are having an election for president, not selecting a pastor for a church nor a rabbi for a synagogue," Lynn said. "It's important to get off the religion talk and into talk about policy issues."

Lynn worries that the election may become "a contest about who can appear the most pious. That ought to be irrelevant to the selection of presidential nominees. It sends the signal that holy scripture instead of the Constitution is the basis for making laws, and that is a very dangerous idea. This is still a democracy, not a theocracy."

Lynn is not alone.

"This is incredibly overdone, and Lieberman topped it all," said Larry Sabato, a professor of political science at the University of Virginia. "If the Republicans did what Lieberman did, I expect the American Civil Liberties Union would be all over them," Sabato said.

"That's coming very close to the line of separation of church and state, if it isn't crossing over it, and it's going to get worse," Sabato said. "You can see the direction we're moving."

It could become "troublesome," agreed Thomas Mann, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution. "It's not there yet. Some people are a little uncomfortable how we moved from intense secularism to a period of intense religiosity. We'll go back somewhere to a balance," Mann predicted.

Religion on their sleeves

"But given the nature and extent to which religion has been an advantage to the Republicans, the Democrats are determined to wear religion on their sleeves right now, but it does not threaten separation of church and state. They're just self-consciously engaged in sharing their religious concern on the issues."

It's troublesome to Morshed Alam, a Democratic convention delegate from New York, who is a Muslim.

"For power, politicians are trying to bring religion into politics," Alam said. "I think it is divisive and works against inclusion."

Al From, the influential head of the Democratic Leadership Council, an organization of centrist Democrats, said Republicans have sought to "take advantage" of religion for political gain, but he said he is not worried, "yet," about the amount of religious discussion in this campaign. "This is a religious country. It's not surprising that is reflected in politics," he said.

According to Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster, voters value spirituality and want candidates to possess religious beliefs. At both conventions, Luntz conducted focus group studies with swing voters, recording their responses to the political speeches.

These voters reacted sharply to religious rhetoric, Luntz said.

"It all depends on context," Luntz said. "If you talked about Bill Clinton's specific behavior and then you started to preach about it, independents and Democrats responded very negatively to that. But if you were talking about standards in general, without mentioning Bill Clinton, then the reaction was completely positive. Nuance matters," Luntz said.

Beth Corbin National Grassroots Organizer
Americans United for Separation of Church and State
518 C Street, N.E.
Washington, D.C. 20002
PH: 202-466-3234
FAX: 202-466-2587

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