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Published: Sunday, 6/6/2004

The intricate dance between religion and politics

WASHINGTON - If you are a Roman Catholic in some parts of the country, you are not supposed to vote for any politician, such as Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry, a Catholic, who may personally oppose abortion but supports the legal right of a woman to have one.

If you're an evangelical Christian, you are very likely to sit in a pew on a Sunday sometime soon listening to a minister tell you that you should vote for President Bush, a born-again Methodist.

If you belong to a liberal Protestant denomination, you may hear an admonition from the pulpit that to vote for a president who authorized the war in Iraq and supports the death penalty would be to betray your moral conscience.

If you're an African-American pastor, expect Democrats to knock on your door, call on your phone, send you mail, and e-mail you to seek your support.

If you're a Muslim, the odds are you voted for Mr. Bush in 2000, but that you're less likely to vote for him this year because of his Middle East policies.

If you're Jewish, you may have voted for Al Gore in 2000, but this year you may be less certain you'll vote for the Democrat because Mr. Bush has been forging close ties with Israel.

Religion and politics have always been surreptitious bedfellows in America, and in some periods open cohorts. Remember the Moral Majority's backing of Ronald Reagan in 1980? But this year the eagerness to politicize religion seems boundless.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.), a Catholic, was taken aback when Msgr. Kevin Vann, the pastor of Blessed Sacrament Church in Springfield, Ill., told a newspaper that he would not want to give the senator Holy Communion because of his position upholding the law of the land on abortion rights. At least four bishops around the country have said they would deny communion to politicians who support abortion rights. One bishop in Colorado said voters who vote for such politicians shouldn't be permitted to take part in the Eucharist.

Senator Durbin had his staff figure out a scorecard aimed at showing that Catholic Democratic senators vote more in alignment with the positions of U.S. Catholic bishops on a wide range of issues than many Catholic Republicans - except on abortion. The issues ranged from immigration (the bishops favor more open rules) to gun control (they're for more gun control) to media ownership (the bishops want diversity in TV and radio ownership) to the death penalty (they're opposed) to the war in Iraq (Pope John Paul II is against the war).

Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, the No. 3 GOP Senate leader and a conservative Catholic, was livid. Mr. Durbin's scorecard showed him voting with the bishops only 40 percent of the time. In contrast, Senator Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate and a Catholic, voted with the bishops 61 percent of the time, according to Mr. Durbin's scorecard.

Senator Santorum said, "To suggest, as this scorecard does, that the issue of taking innocent human life is on par and has the moral equivalency of how many television stations somebody owns in Erie, Pa., is a deliberate attempt to confuse and obfuscate what is the true teaching of the (Catholic) Church."

Mr. Durbin has a different take. By emphasizing the church's stand against abortion, he said, "unfortunately, recent media attention has focused on one or two priorities of the Catholic Church, while obscuring others." His scorecard noted that the church does not give equal weight to all the issues.

But Mr. Santorum was not mollified. "This is a selective attempt to make John Kerry and a bunch of liberal Democrats who disagree with the church's teaching look like faithful Catholics."

Meanwhile, Republicans are out in force proselytizing for votes among weekly churchgoers on grounds they gave Mr. Bush dramatically more votes than they gave Mr. Gore in 2000 and that there are more votes where those came from. And they readily use such issues as Mr. Bush's opposition to abortion and gay marriage, which they don't see as a civil-rights issue but as a question of morality.

Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, the incoming chairman of the National Governors Association and a Democrat sometimes mentioned as a possible running mate for Mr. Kerry, notes that as a Southerner he's no stranger to the intricate dance between religion and politics. He says Democrats must be careful they don't dismiss the importance of evangelicals. "You can't get crosswise with cultural issues."

But with the United States involved in a war in a region of the world where the volatile mix of religion and politics has killed millions of people, Americans should be wary of the growing acceptance of the idea that if and where you worship decides for whom you vote.



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