Columns » Bob McCord

Church-state partners


The Rev. Ronnie Floyd of Springdale apparently has one of the largest congregations in the nation. A story in the Washington Post last year said there were 31 churches in the country with 10,000 members or more, so his First Baptist Church membership of 13,000 is surely impressive. Newspaper stories have said that during his preaching on July 4, Rev. Floyd indicated that his members ought to vote for President Bush because he had signed a bill that prohibits partial-birth abortions. He not only told his members that Bush signed it but in the sanctuary he flashed a picture on a screen of him signing the bill. That he did this on Independence Day - the day the Declaration of Independence was signed back in 1776 - sort of irritated me because some of those men who signed the Declaration of Independence had come to America to get away from nations in Europe that were run by bishops and popes. This also attracted the attention of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which reminded Floyd that the tax code says that houses of worship can be fined or lose their tax-exempt status if they endorse or oppose candidates for public office. Preachers can work for candidates as private citizens but can't use church buildings or money if they want to retain their favored tax status. Floyd's answer was: "Why in the world would I let a left-wing, radical liberal group who does not even believe the words 'under God' need to be in the Pledge of Allegiance ... try to intimidate me and to get me to shut up?" Formed in 1947, Americans United for Separation of Church and State is a sort of watchdog organization that protects Thomas Jefferson and James Madison's concept of separation of church and state. Its board of trustees includes the general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, a professor of religion at Texas Christian University, the minister of the First Presbyterian church in Manhattan, Kan., and I don't believe they think of themselves as "radical liberals." I wonder if Floyd knows that in June the Southern Baptist Convention joined Americans United in persuading the House Ways and Means Committee to kill a bill (called "Fair Harbor for Churches") that would have allowed preachers to endorse candidates. The traditional churches, the Interfaith Alliance, the People for the American Way and the Americans United fight to keep alive the idea that was first bestowed on us in 1784 when a bunch of freemen in Portsmouth, R.I. drafted a constitution calling for separation of church and state. In the last seven years Americans United has reported 50 churches that were endorsing Democrats as well as Republicans that violated Internal Revenue's rules. For example, a few years ago it got Jerry Falwell's "Old Time Gospel Hour" fined $50,000 in back taxes and his tax-exemption revoked for two years for telling listeners how to vote. Now Preacher Falwell is busy again trying to build a machine of evangelical churches to vote for President Bush. Why not? It's plain that President Bush has become that kind of church-goer and has done many things to help the movement. Even though the federal government was already giving grants to religious groups for social services, he proposed a "faith-based initiative" to give more money to religious organizations. But the Congress refused to pass it, so the president began operating it on executive orders. One of the recipients is the Greater Exodus Baptist Church of Philadelphia, whose pastor is the Rev. Herbert Lusk. He received nearly $1 million to combat AIDS through its People for People operation. Lusk was the preacher who endorsed Bush at the Republican Convention in 2000. Televangelist Pat Robertson was a critic of the "faith-based initiative" in 2001. But he changed his mind in 2002 when he got a half-million-dollar federal grant. Last year Bush's "faith-based initiative" awarded 129 grants worth $1.1 billion. Recently more than a thousand other religious leaders came looking for money at a meeting of the White House Office on Faith-Based Initiatives. I wonder if Floyd attended. Most of them were evangelicals, and our president is busy supporting most of the things they stand for - no marriage for people of the same sex, no late-term abortions, no stem-cell research. In fact, many churches didn't hesitate in furnishing their membership lists when the Bush-Cheney campaign asked for them. Isn't it strange that in a radio broadcast, President Bush, discussing the hopes for the future of Iraq, said, "What I would like to see is a government where church and state are separated." Of course, he said that in 2003.

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