It seems to me that many religious people in America are turning away from two of their important precepts - believing in the separation of church and state and attempting to bring more people into their church.
Presidential candidate John Kerry, a Catholic, has been denied communion at mass by his own bishop and others because the church is opposed to abortions, while Kerry thinks some should be allowed. The second Catholic candidate nominated for President (the first one was Alfred E. Smith in 1928) was John F. Kennedy who was elected in 1960. His answer to his bishops who didn't like some of his ideas is one that went down in history books: "I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me."
Kerry has said that as a politician his loyalty is to the people, not the pope. But as far as we know, Kerry hasn't been to communion yet. Some say that this argument with his church will hurt Kerry because the nation has become more religious than it was in Kennedy's day.
This doesn't mean that there are more mainline church members. But there are more evangelicals who want tax money to run their religious schools and to help pay for church activities. Until now such things were considered as violations of the first amendment to the Constitution ratified in 1791.
Under the guidance of President George Bush, a late but enthusiastic evangelical, government vouchers have been sent to kids in the District of Columbia to pay to go to church schools, and his "faith-based" program is now sending tax money to fund some activities of religious organizations.
Bills are now in the Congress, sponsored by 157 House members such as Majority Leader Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, that would allow churches to endorse and campaign for candidates and still to be free of paying taxes for any of their activities. DeLay says he seeks a "God-centered nation" that would be against homosexuals, abortion and the separation of church and state. Wouldn't that give us a country sort of like those in the Middle East where we have sent more than 150,000 American soldiers to try to stop their terrorism?
The evangelicals are encouraged by the broadcast preachers and the many people who hate changes in American life. In the election four years ago, George Bush got most of his votes in states like ours where 54 percent of the people go to church at least once a week, and Al Gore got the most votes in states with only 34 percent of their people going to church weekly. Of course, politicians are aware that most people don't like change and neither do they when it comes to the seats they hold.
Neither do the Methodists. The delegates to the United Methodist General Conference met in Pittsburgh last month and made it painfully clear that the church wanted nothing to do with gays or lesbians, even though they make up at least 10 percent of the population of the United States. As a Methodist all my life, I find this very strange because every congregation I have ever been in has worked constantly to bring others into the church.
But in Pittsburgh, the 1,000 delegates voted against the ordination of gays and lesbians and marriages of homosexuals in their churches, which surely wouldn't tempt homosexuals to join congregations like that. A couple of Arkansas delegates have said that they thought this might not have happened if it hadn't been for two things:
Karen Dammann, a Methodist pastor who admitted being a homosexual, had just gone before the United Methodist Judicial Council, which ruled that it had no authority to review her case. This decision irritated the delegates because it neither changed nor approved the church's policy so they felt they had to act. Also, there were fewer delegates from the West and Northeast and more from the Central and Southern states.
Conservatives used letters, e-mails and telephones to tell the delegates that they should "fix once and for all" the matter of having homosexuals as pastors. SoulForce, an organization of moderates and liberals who aren't opposed to homosexuals being pastors, notified the delegates that it would stage a demonstration at the conference if it changed the ruling of the Judicial Council. This made the delegates believe they had to do something to avoid a scene.
So a prohibition against the ordination of practicing homosexuals was approved by a vote of 2 to 1. The vote was 5 to 1 in favor of laws that allow marriages of only one man and one woman.
Next week the Southern Baptists will meet in Atlanta and vote on a resolution that calls for all Southern Baptists to take their children out of the public schools and either teach them at home or send them to a Christian private school. The proposal is the work of a retired Air Force general who is the editor of the Baptist Banner newsletter in Virginia and a Houston lawyer who is a coordinator for something called "Exodus Mandate," an organization that advances Christian and home school.
I was glad to see that Charlie Warren, the editor of the Arkansas Baptist News, urged the Arkansas delegates to vote against such a resolution. In his weekly column, Warren made the point that Baptist kids and parents can help the public schools by "touching others with the gospel." In other words, a melting pot, which is what has created the most wonderful country in the world.