The role of religion in the presidential campaign tops the 2008 “Top Ten” list of top church-state stories, according to the editors of Church & State.
The monthly magazine, published by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, is the nation’s only news periodical devoted exclusively to the intersection of religion and government.
Said Church & State publisher Barry W. Lynn, “It was a wild and crazy year. To tell you the truth, I’m glad it’s coming to a close. I’m hopeful 2009 will be a lot better.”
After studying the past 12 months of news, the editors selected the following 10 stories as the most important and most interesting church-state developments for the year.
1. The Role of Religion in the Presidential Campaign: Not since 1960 when John F. Kennedy the first Roman Catholic president was elected, has religion played such a large role in a presidential campaign. News media representatives grilled candidates on what sins they had committed and what their favorite Bible verses were. Barack Obama fought false rumors that he is secretly a Muslim, and Mitt Romney’s Mormonism became a controversial topic. Candidates were held accountable for the incendiary comments of their pastors and their clergy supporters, such as the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and TV preacher John Hagee. Many observers thought the whole thing was an unholy mess, especially in a nation that separates religion and government.
2. The Resurgence of the Religious Right: While pundits and progressives have proclaimed the demise of the Religious Right, the fundamentalist political movement remained extraordinarily powerful. Republican John McCain found it necessary to name evangelical Sarah Palin as his running mate to mollify the GOP’s restive religious base, and Religious Right forces rammed through bans on same-sex marriage in California, Florida and Arizona. Moderate evangelical Richard Cizik was forced out as government affairs representative at the National Association of Evangelicals after coming under fire from Religious Right forces.
3. The Battle Over Gay Marriage: Bans on same-sex marriage were approved in California, Florida and Arizona with conservative religious forces leading the drive. California’s approval of Proposition 8, with massive funding from members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was particularly contentious. The Mormons, joined by the Roman Catholic hierarchy and evangelical Protestant congregations, were successful in passing a constitutional amendment that takes away the right of same-sex couples to marry and reflects church doctrine in civil law. The issue now moves back to the state Supreme Court.
4. The Ascendancy of Rick Warren: Once known primarily as a mega-church pastor and best-selling author (The Purpose Driven Life), the Rev. Rick Warren has rapidly moved into position as the nation’s most prominent preacher, despite right-wing views on reproductive freedom, gay rights and church-state separation. Warren, a Southern Baptist who heads Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., is viewed by progressives as Jerry Falwell in a Hawaiian shirt with an ace PR team. After hosting a presidential debate stacked toward John McCain and being asked to give the invocation at Barack Obama’s inauguration, many think Warren seems destined to be the new Billy Graham.
5. Religious Right Influence at Justice Department: Religious Right influence at the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) was exposed this year. According to an internal DOJ investigation reported in the media in July, senior aides in the department used religious and political criteria to hire staff members for non-political positions. Monica Goodling, a top adviser to the attorney general, checked to see if job applicants were “pro-God in public life” and held right-wing views on abortion, homosexuality and other issues. (Goodling is a graduate of TV preacher Pat Robertson’s Regent University.) DOJ also posted a legally dubious memorandum this year insisting that the federal government may give grants to “faith-based” social service agencies that discriminate in hiring, even if Congress has explicitly banned such bias.
6. Battles Over Creationism in Public Schools: New battles have erupted over the teaching of evolution in public schools. Blocked by the courts from teaching fundamentalist religious concepts directly in biology classes, Religious Right forces are trying a backdoor strategy. They are demanding that schools teach the “strengths and weaknesses” of evolution, a euphemism for creationist ideas. Over the heated objections of educators, scientists and civil liberties activists, the Louisiana legislature approved an “academic freedom” law encouraging such instruction in the state’s schools. Now the Texas State Board of Education is debating a similar proposal as part of its 10-year review of science standards.
7. Church Politicking Plot: The Religious Right’s dream of building a fundamentalist church-based political machine took a big step forward in 2008 when more than 30 pastors used their pulpits to endorse Republican political candidates. They acted at the behest of the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a wealthy Religious Right legal outfit that wants to challenge the federal tax law ban on partisan politicking by tax-exempt groups. The ADF, which was founded by TV preachers and other religious broadcasters, hopes the Internal Revenue Service will revoke participating churches’ tax exemptions leading to a court showdown.
8. Defeat of Jeb Bush Referenda: Florida Gov. Jeb Bush saw his school voucher subsidies for religious and other private schools overturned by the state Supreme Court in 2006. Undeterred, the now former governor’s allies on an obscure tax commission engineered two measures onto the November 2008 ballot that would have repealed the state constitution’s ban on public funding of religion as well as diluted its provision for a strong system of public schools. To Bush’s dismay, the state Supreme Court on Sept. 3 struck the referenda from the ballot, derailing the scheme.
9. Blocking of ‘Christian’ License Plate: The South Carolina legislature unanimously approved a special “Christian” license plate featuring a bright yellow cross, a stained-glass church window and the words “I Believe.” Backed by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, four local clergy and two minority faith groups challenged the government favoritism toward one faith. On Dec. 11, a federal district court blocked issuance of the plates. The judge’s action may forestall similar sectarian plates under consideration in other states.
10. The Christmas Wars: It has become an annual holiday tradition Religious Right groups and their allies in the right-wing media launch a yearly crusade to stop the alleged secularization of Christmas and to pressure government to include Christian symbols in the holiday mix. They rail against stores’ use of the term “Happy Holidays” and insist that advertisements say “Merry Christmas” instead. This year, much of the attention focused on a Washington State battle where an atheist Winter Solstice sign was positioned near a Christian Nativity scene in the state capital. Fox News pundit Bill O’Reilly and an array of Religious Right scolds lambasted Gov. Christine Gregoire for allowing the anti-religious sentiment. Ironically, credit for the atheist display actually should go to the Alliance Defense Fund, a Religious Right legal group that sued Gregoire last year, insisting that the Capitol is an open forum where a Nativity scene (and all other forms of speech) must be allowed.
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.