Ties tighten between religion and politics

Lawmakers form a 'faith-based' caucus, while churches clarify role in national affairs

America, despite its signature wall of separation between church-state, is also a place where religion and politics are often deeply entwined - a phenomenon rarely more in evidence than in the current election cycle.

The signs go beyond a presidential race in which a "religion gap" is seen by pollsters as a crucial divide for Democratic candidate John Kerry to close.

Consider that in just the past week:

• A bipartisan group of lawmakers this week launched a "faith-based caucus" of House members who back efforts to make it easier for federal grants to reach church-affiliated social programs.

• At a retreat in Denver, the US Association of Catholic bishops considered how far to use denial of communion as a goad to pressure politicians of the faith to vote in line with church doctrine.

• A national group of evangelical Christians pondered their role in national affairs - and whether their alignment and influence should be less closely tied to the Republican Party.

Such efforts to navigate the intersection of faith and politics are reaffirming America's uniqueness as the most religious of Western democracies - and are helping to shape high-profile debates over issues ranging from school vouchers to stem-cell research.

It's a level of religiosity in public life that would be anathema in any European capital, but is deeply rooted in America.

"This country is the most religious developed democracy in the world," says pollster Celinda Lake. "On the one hand, Americans want separation of church and state, but on the other they feel comfortable with 'In God we trust' and 'One nation under God.' It's a core value."

All this doesn't necessarily portend a heightened influence of religion in public life. Indeed, leaders promoting faith-based initiatives are reacting to what they see as growing secularization in a society rooted in consumerism and a celebrity.

For House members who launched a faith-based caucus Wednesday, a key motive was to put the spiritual capacities of churches to work on social problems such as poverty and substance abuse.

"The vast majority of Americans - Democrats and Republicans alike - believe that government could be working more effectively with faith-based and community groups dedicated to improving their communities," said a bipartisan group of lawmakers at the launch of the caucus, formally called the Community Solutions and Initiatives Coalition.

Poverty and other social ills create "very deep wounds in this country that need healing," says Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin at the launch. "But we need foot soldiers in Congress to make sure it does not get tied up in partisan politics."

But there are also deep concerns on both sides of the church/state divide that that such ties can bind. And faith groups are recalibrating how close those ties should be.

At a closed-door retreat in Denver, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) released details of deliberations over whether to penalize lawmakers who "cooperated with evil" by supporting abortion rights. "Disciplinary actions are permitted, but they should be applied when efforts at dialogue, persuasion, and conversion have been fully exhausted," said Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the task force leader.

Denying communion to Catholic lawmakers who do not vote in line with the church on abortion could turn a sacrament into a "partisan political battleground.... It could be more difficult for faithful Catholics to serve in public life because they might be seen as not standing up for principle, but as under pressure from the hierarchy," he said.

It's a threat that Catholic lawmakers take seriously. Two Senate Democrats matched the votes and actions of Catholic senators with USCCB positions on issues such as minimum wage, death penalty, and media ownership. The high scorer was Kerry, who has been targeted by some bishops as unfit for communion because of his votes on abortion.

At the same time, the National Association of Evangelicals is debating new draft guidelines advising members to "guard against over-identifying Christian social goals with a single political party, lest nonbelievers think that Christian faith is essentially political in nature," according to a report that first appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

Such debates come in a year when the electorate evenly divided, and both parties are looking to sympathetic churches to boost their appeal. Republicans are targeting large, white evangelical churches, and Democrats are appealing to black churches to energize their vote.

There's also renewed concern across the religious spectrum that ties between church and government can be too close, posing risks to both. This week, the Anti-Defamation League objected to a reference to America as "a Christian nation" in the new party platform of the Texas Republican Party.

The controversy suggests the fine line to be walked by those who say faith has a valid role to play in public life.

"We're seeing an unprecedented secularization of American life, in which some people seem to think that any issue that's connected in any way to a person's religion can't be discussed in public life," says Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama, who has been fighting losing battles for several of President Bush's most conservative judicial nominees. "But ... I don't think we're going to follow the European model on secularization."

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