Church Disservice: Candidates, Clergy Mix Religion And Politics Unwisely

Many Americans recognize that our country has reached a new low in muddling faith and politics. Yet that doesn't seem to deter the candidates and some religious leaders from exploiting religion for partisan ends and undermining the basic principle of church-state separation.

Tomorrow, the 2008 election will be over, and the staff at Americans United can finally breathe a sigh of relief.

That relief won't be based on the election's outcome, but rather from no longer having to advocate constantly against the excessive use and abuse of religion in this presidential election -- an abuse committed by both the political left and right.

Many Americans recognize that our country has reached a new low in muddling faith and politics. Yet that doesn't seem to deter the candidates and some religious leaders from exploiting religion for partisan ends and undermining the basic principle of church-state separation.

Just this weekend, Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain made their final pleas to church-goers across the country. The Associated Press reported that McCain's campaign recruited 15,000 volunteers to hand out literature at Catholic parishes and evangelical congregations. The flyers compared McCain and Obama on social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage and said, "Who shares Your Values? You decide."

While McCain was busy catering to religious conservatives, Obama took his campaign to black churches in battleground states, asking congregants to read a supposedly nonpartisan letter written by him.

Obama's campaign would not release the text of the letter to the Associated Press, but during his primary campaign, his volunteers read another missive to black churches in South Carolina "that didn't explicitly ask people to vote for him but highlighted issues and encouraged voter participation," according to the AP report.

This weekend's activities are just the bitter icing on a rather unappetizing cake.

Religious and political leaders have injudiciously brought faith and politics together far too much in this election. Since May 2007, we have filed Internal Revenue Service complaints about nearly 30 religious institutions and churches from across the country for violating their tax exemption and endorsing candidates.

Back in August, Obama and McCain agreed to stand together on stage for the first time at a fundamentalist mega-church, fielding questions from the Rev. Rick Warren. The candidates answered questions that began with "The Bible says...," followed by what their faith in Jesus Christ means on a daily basis.

After this interview ended, critics complained that "CNN did...a great disservice by giving a leader of just one of this nation's religious faiths a platform to influence the outcome of the coming presidential election."

Another critic wrote, "Both Obama and McCain gave 'good' answers, but that's not the point. They shouldn't have been asked."

But, unfortunately, some pundits and news reporters have made it their business to ask. And some Americans have taken it so far as to use a candidate's religious beliefs as the sole reason to keep them out of office.

Take former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who simply because of his Mormon beliefs received opposition from some fundamentalist pastors and laity. They said voting for him amounted to endorsing a cult, and he had to answer questions about polygamy and sacred Mormon undergarments.

Obama met with similar religiously grounded attacks, constantly having to insist that he is not a Muslim. The AP reported that U.S. Muslims felt both campaigns treated them as "political lepers."

Our country was founded on secular and democratic principles, not sectarian and theocratic concepts. Yet in this election, it has apparently become acceptable for pastors to grill candidates on their religious beliefs, for clergy to split congregations with partisan politics and for the American public to make those of a minority faith feel like political outcasts.

As Americans United has stated repeatedly this election, we're electing a president, not a pastor. Let's hope when the next four years roll around, Americans get back to the real issues and make it right.