GOD save us from religious proselytizers in the upcoming presidential election. From the pulpits of megachurches to Bible-thumping evangelicals, and from gospel-swaying urban preachers to dioceses of established religions, faith-based politics is about to descend from on high like an Old Testament plague. In the name of all that is holy, religious leaders will soon charge into the secular abyss of political discourse and try to steal its thunder.
Last week it was televangelist Pat Robertson's turn to give his inexplicable blessing to a thrice married, abortion and gay rights Republican for president. This week it was the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which issued its election recommendations to Roman Catholics with the caveat that if they didn't follow the church's teachings they risk their eternal salvation.
This direct intrusion of religion into politics and public life dangerously blurs the critically important line between church and state. It motivates some -but fortunately not all - of the faithful to vote their religion at the ballot box, often without regard for which candidate is most qualified to move the country forward.
What makes the faith-based voter guides especially ominous is their narrow selectivity of moral issues that dictate political choice in all but actual names. There's that tax-exempt status to protect, you know. But even that doesn't stop some high priests of sanctimony from trying to distort the democratic process of wide-open debates on public squares into a religious experience of absolutes.
True believers reject the politics of compromise as irreligious and unenlightened. Acceptable candidates understand that issues like abortion, gay marriage, and embryonic stem-cell research require unequivocal positions. They either rise to that moral challenge and gain the unconditional backing of single-issue voters, or they don't, and cede support.
Sure, other issues beside abortion and same-sex marriage matter. Just not as much. When the Catholic bishops issued their political road map Wednesday for Roman Catholics voting in the 2008 elections, the prelates recognized that a wide range of issues, from poverty and health care to workers' rights and environmental protection, should be top priorities of government.
But abortion's pre-eminence as the foundational black-and-white issue of the Catholic Church - and other religious institutions and evangelical theaters - overshadows everything. It is not, as the Catholic bishops decreed, just one issue among many. The direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life is always wrong, they said.
Catholics who vote for a candidate because of his or her abortion rights record would be "guilty of formal cooperation in evil." Even church members who vote for an abortion-rights candidate for other reasons as well, are still in "remote material cooperation" with evil.
Interestingly, many of the spiritual leaders who decry legalized abortion and gay unions as modern-day abominations are notably subdued when it comes to the direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life in unnecessary wars. The 2004 presidential election turned not on the catastrophic invasion of Iraq, but on the horror of gays getting married and destroying all that is held sacred.
It was an utterly manufactured crisis that worked brilliantly to inspire God-fearing "values voters" to flock to the polls and choose candidates who sang from the same hymnal. But exploiting select issues near and dear to church-going absolutists has won elections for more than a few moral midgets.
It has put presidents in the White House who had no business being there. In 2004, it gave George W. Bush a free pass to dig America even deeper into a war he should never have started.
The Catholic bishops appeared to acknowledge the Iraq fiasco when they expressed "serious moral concerns" about "preventive use of military force." But at the last minute they mitigated that with an added sentence accepting "the continuing threat of fanatical extremism and global terror."
So abortion is an unqualified sin, but allowing the killing and maiming of tens of thousands of Arabs to proceed under false pretenses - not to mention being responsible for nearly 4,000 American deaths - may have some justification? It's damnable hypocrisy from the pulpit.
We sinners need sermons on salvation from ourselves, not on absolutes that should dictate our political choices at the polls. But the appeal of affecting public campaigns through religion is apparently far stronger than that of just saving souls. God help us.
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