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Published: Friday, 10/29/2004

Michigan priest will speak out - no matter the cost

CLAWSON, Mich. - The Rev. Harry Cook, rector of St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Clawson, is going to do something this Sunday that, as he plans to tell his congregation, "I have never done before in 40 years of preaching."

He plans - whatever the cost - to address his congregation and tell them, during his homily, that President George W. Bush is ruining the country.

Episcopal priests don't normally do anything like that. Father Cook has long been an outspoken advocate of keeping church and state separate. Incidentally, he is by no means a trendy, flighty, go-with-the-fashion sort of minister. A noted, if controversial, serious Biblical scholar, he instantly impresses one as a man of gravitas.

His sermons have been singled out for praise by The Rev. Harvey Guthrie, Jr., former dean of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass. The Rev. William Spong , Episcopal bishop of Newark, once said "Harry Cook is a rare priest. I wish many of us could sit at his feet every Sunday morning."

But Harry Cook is also a family man who worries, frankly, whether what he is about to do might cost him his job, cost him his parish in this small, mainly blue-collar town. He is scarcely wealthy, and though he is 65, he still has children in school.

Why is he risking so much and taking the church into partisan politics? "The last thing this is about is partisan politics," he says in his crusty way. "What we are talking about here is the kind of world we will bequeath to our grandchildren."

"Is it not now clear that the invasion of Iraq was predicated upon deliberate deception? Is it not equally clear that the war few wanted and nobody needed has become a catastrophe for America's reputation as a people of honor and principle?"

Father Cook argues that what he is about to do is required by his faith.

"Our religion is at its core and in all its outward-moving life a very worldly 'body and blood' experience in which the values and mandates of peace and justice, equity and fairness are both fundamental and paramount, even as the Baptismal covenant says so clearly."

What this is really about, he confesses, is his grandchildren, and the world they will inherit after he has died. And with a twinkle in his eye, he confesses that he wants them "to be able to say that their grandfather did not watch football games and sit-coms on television as their country slouched toward moral disaster."

Not many ministers will do what Harry Cook is doing. But this is an election that is moving many Americans to take sides in a way seldom seen before. In Toledo, a man has a sign on a large billboard overlooking I-75 that calls on Roman Catholics to do all they can to defeat their fellow Roman Catholic, U.S. Sen. John Kerry; they believe his stand in favor of a woman's right to choose an abortion is morally evil.

Last week I talked to a conservative Christian publishing executive, a stout Bush supporter, who told me he suggested to his wife (they've been married 31 years) that the country might get along just fine if in fact Mr. Kerry did win next Tuesday.

"She was so upset she stopped speaking to me," he said.

U.S. Sen. Zell Miller, a Georgia Democrat, is traveling around the country with President Bush, denouncing fellow Democrat Kerry. Meanwhile, rock-ribbed Republicans like John Eisenhower and Bill Milliken, longest-serving governor in Michigan history, have denounced President Bush and publicly back the Democrat.

Whatever else you can say about all this, apathy seems to be dead, and many are forecasting the largest turnout in many years. But the largest turnout of eligible voters in history was in 1860, the election that led to the Civil War, and it seems safe to say nobody wants that again. President George Bush ran four years ago promising to be a "uniter not a divider," and if nothing else, it seems clear the nation is more polarized than ever.

Let's hope that four years from now the red and blue Americas don't loathe each other quite so much. My prediction, by the way? Mr. Kerry, in a close but clear outcome decided by the new voters and the latest revelations on the mess in Iraq. Republicans keep both houses of Congress, and Michiganders overwhelmingly outlaw gay marriage. Barbara Laster, 79, of Oregon (Ohio) offers a different prediction. "I think Bush will win. I always vote for the loser."

Footnote: Last week's column was about a court decision that would have allowed Michigan voters to go into the wrong precinct and cast a so-called "provisional ballot" for President and Congress only. That ruling has been overturned, and at least for this election, voters will have to show up, as always, where they are supposed to vote.



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