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Clergy enter political arena in new way during close presidential race

Posted: Friday, October 15, 2004

 

  Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., center, leans in to speak to the Rev. Jesse Jackson, right, while the Rev. Otis Moss of the Olivet Institutional Baptist Church, gives his opening remarks, welcoming Kerry to Cleveland, at the East Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Cleveland, Sunday, Oct. 3, 2004. While ministers and politicians have joined forces at campaign time for years, the level of religious involvement has intensified this year, observers say. AP Photo/Ross Weitzer

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., center, leans in to speak to the Rev. Jesse Jackson, right, while the Rev. Otis Moss of the Olivet Institutional Baptist Church, gives his opening remarks, welcoming Kerry to Cleveland, at the East Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Cleveland, Sunday, Oct. 3, 2004. While ministers and politicians have joined forces at campaign time for years, the level of religious involvement has intensified this year, observers say.

AP Photo/Ross Weitzer

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) Before stepping forward to say a prayer at a Bush-Cheney rally, Pastor Bob Huffaker had limited his political involvement to encouraging parishioners to vote their conscience.

But on Sept. 20, before about 3,000 people at a suburban school, Huffaker poked fun at Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, then prayed that God would give wisdom and protection to the country's leaders.

While ministers and politicians have joined forces at campaign time for years, the religious involvement has intensified this year, observers say. Clergy are organizing voter registration drives, attending political events and making the election a regular topic of sermons.

''When you see all these ministers and priests at these rallies, on both sides, what you're seeing is a trend that is commonplace throughout American history but has reached a very high level right now,'' said Ken Warren, a Saint Louis University political analyst.

Huffaker's joke: that supporters of Bush should drive around during the day with their headlights on. Supporters of Kerry were to drive around at night with their headlights off.

Watchdog groups that monitor religious politicking have complained that clergy have become partisan, in violation of IRS rules for tax-exempt organizations.

But Huffaker, senior pastor of the evangelical Grove City Church of the Nazarene, which has more than 5,000 members, thinks ministers have an important role to play as the country debates its future. ''For too long pastors, churches, have just said, 'Well, we're just not going to get into politics,''' he said.

In suburban Seattle, Pastor Joseph Fuiten of Cedar Park Assembly of God Church is the volunteer chairman of a statewide effort to rally social conservatives to re-elect Bush. He also runs his own Web site where he advocates electing Republicans, but said he is careful to use his own money and not endorse candidates from the pulpit, to stay in line with IRS regulations.

In Missouri, the Kerry-Edwards campaign hired the Rev. David Keyes as a religious outreach coordinator. Keyes, who is married to the widow of a Swift boat veteran and Kerry friend killed in Vietnam, organizes ''prayer potluck'' rallies for the campaign in Missouri and other states.

''I can't as a person of faith simply step back and say I'm above it all,'' said Keyes, 59, a minister in both the Unitarian Universalist church and United Church of Christ, which are among the more liberal denominations. ''It's not what Jesus would have done, it's not what I can do. If we're interested in people's health and well-being, if we're interested in the quality of human life, I feel we have to get involved.''

In Columbus, the Rev. Aaron Wheeler of the Mountaintop Missionary Baptist Church said a prayer before a speech by former President George H.W. Bush. ''Before I pray, I just want to say I'm proud to be a Republican,'' Wheeler said.

The Rev. James Black, a Roman Catholic priest at St. Peter's Catholic Church in Chillicothe, said he believes the issues before voters gay marriage, a war, abortion have brought religion to the fore in a way previous campaigns didn't.

Black gave a prayer before a rally for Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards, then found some parishioners questioning his action. Kerry, who is Catholic, supports abortion rights and a small number of U.S. bishops have warned voters not to back him for that reason.

Black did not endorse the Democratic ticket through his prayer.

''Moral values'' will play a role in the decision of 64 percent of voters, according to a Pew Research Center poll that examined voters and religious issues in the campaign.

But the August poll also found that voters want to maintain limits on mixing religion and politics. Sixty-five percent of respondents said churches should not endorse candidates.

Ministers are playing a role in the campaigns of both parties, said John Green, a University of Akron political scientist and expert on religion and politics.

''Conservative Christians are out supporting Bush, but the Kerry people are doing a pretty good job rounding up ministers on their side,'' he said.

This year has seen unprecedented outreach by the Republican campaigns to voters who regularly worship at their church or synagogue. In 2000, an exit poll done for The Associated Press and other news organizations showed that George W. Bush beat Al Gore by more than 15 percentage points among white voters who attended church weekly or more.

Kerry has also lobbied for support among religious leaders and their followers, attending two church services last Sunday in Florida.

For Huffaker, a minister for 44 years, the debate over social issues compelled him to take his politics public.

''This is a spiritual thing as much or more so than political,'' he said. ''When you're talking about same-sex marriages and abortions, if the church doesn't step up to the plate, it's going to change our whole society.''

On the Net:

Pew Research Center for the People and the Press: http://people-press.org/



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