August 17, 2004

by Joe Sobran

     THE NEW YORK TIMES reported recently that many 
churches are in effect backing President Bush for 
reelection. I find this disturbing because I find Bush 
disturbing. But judging by the flood of letters to the 
editor this story provoked, many liberals find it 
disturbing because they find religion in public life 

     One TIMES reader asks, "What happened to separation 
of church and state?" Another instructs us, "This kind of 
piety fuels much of the madness and misunderstanding in 
the world, whether in the form of the Ku Klux Klan or 
international terrorism."

     Well, as far as I know, church and state are still 
pretty much separate. The Constitution merely forbids 
Congress to make any "law respecting an establishment of 
religion, or abridging the free exercise thereof." This 
provision applies to Congress and can therefore be 
violated only by Congress, not by churches, even if they 
support particular candidates.

     And if anything afoot violates it, it's the threat 
of revoking churches' tax exemptions if they engage in 
political activity -- a threat that doesn't seem to be 
directed against, say, black churches that openly endorse 
Democratic candidates. John Kerry recently took the 
pulpit in one such church to attack Bush, a widely 
publicized event that didn't cause liberals to cry out 
against the political abuse of religion. Nor are these 
on-again, off-again separationists alarmed when such 
clergymen as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton address 
Democratic conventions.

     Of course nobody really thinks of Jackson and 
Sharpton as serious religious figures. They are political 
jive artists who excite more mirth than reverence; their 
religion, such as it is, never gets in the way of their 
real interests. Jackson, serving as Bill Clinton's 
"spiritual counselor," brought his pregnant mistress to 
the White House as he ministered to Clinton's carnal 
weakness. Sharpton won fame -- or rather infamy -- in the 
Tawana Brawley hoax and confirmed his standing as a 
"civil rights leader" by egging on racial violence in New 
York City.

     So liberals and Democrats don't mind religious 
figures too much, so long as they are obviously, 
flamboyantly fraudulent. Even so, it's hypocritical to 
complain that church-state separation is threatened only 
when Republicans find religious supporters.

     Religious habits are actually good predictors of 
voting patterns. Those who attend church regularly tend 
to vote Republican; those who don't tend to vote 
Democratic. These are demographic facts of life in 
America today; and though white Protestants are no longer 
the majority, they are still America's ethnic core, and 
come November they will vote overwhelmingly for Bush.

     John Kerry, sensing his party's estrangement from 
the heartland, has been stressing his attachment to old 
"values" such as patriotism ("I'm reporting for duty") 
and a carefully unspecified "faith" (rumored to be 
Catholicism). But, with the grace of a man walking a 
tightrope while wearing skis, he adds the reassuringly 
hackneyed nuance that he won't "impose" his religion on 
others by acting as if he actually believed in it. That 
would violate the separation of church and state, you 
see. Just like the Ku Klux Klan and international 

     Insofar as my paltry intellect can penetrate all 
these nuances, I gather that liberal Democrats differ 
from conservative Republicans not in substance, but in 
finesse. Liberal Democrats, deep in their hearts, 
disapprove of (or "personally oppose") abortion and 
sodomy just as passionately as their opponents do, but 
they are able to restrain the impulse to, yes, impose 
their convictions. In their tolerant way -- and what are 
liberals if not tolerant? -- they make room for those who 
disagree with them about these evils, though they are a 
bit less magnanimous toward those who call them evils; 
for calling evils evil is a threat to tolerance and to 
the separation of church and state. So liberals call 
evils "differing points of view," while those who call 
evils evil are "religious fanatics."

     Even that phrase seems redundant, since liberals 
never speak of "irreligious fanatics." Tolerant as they 
are, they recognize that only religion leads to 
fanaticism. That's why we need to separate church and 
state, while keeping a close eye on Mel Gibson. To be 
sure, religion may be practiced discreetly, among 
consenting adults; but when it rears its head in 
politics, it's time to sound the alarm by writing letters 
to the TIMES.

     The liberal attitude toward religion was captured in 
the old British comedy revue BEYOND THE FRINGE by the 
progressive-minded clergyman who said, "I think we've got 
to get away from the idea that God is holy or something."


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