As a young Baptist trapped in a pew for several hours every Sunday, I spent a lot of time reading the Bible. The dog-eared pages in my brown leather, gold-embossed copy were the historical books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles; the Gospels were also favorites. To be perfectly honest, I usually sped through Leviticus and may have skipped directly from Nahum to Zephaniah, so it’s possible that my scriptural education was not quite comprehensive. Even so, I’m fairly certain that there is no verse that reads, “Thou shalt not vote Democratic.”
Maybe my Bible was just a different translation from the one used by Pastor Chan Chandler. Chandler was the minister of East Waynesville Baptist Church in North Carolina who told members of his flock that if they voted for John Kerry, they needed to repent their sin or resign from the church.
Calling himself “merely the spokesperson” for “the most high,” Chandler charged that Kerry was an unbeliever.
That was last fall; a week ago a number of congregants who supported Kerry were officially voted out of the church in a deacon’s meeting. (Chandler now insists that these “actions were not politically motivated,” an argument no doubt intended for the IRS, which could take away the church’s tax-exempt status.)
The New Republican Standard Version of the Bible has been gaining popularity among evangelicals and Catholics. Just a few weeks ago, conservative political and religious leaders lined up on their so-called “Justice Sunday” to charge that those who oppose the ideologically extreme judicial nominees whom they support cannot be true people of faith.
Some members of the American Catholic clergy told Catholic voters last year that a vote for the pro-choice Democratic nominee would be punishable by exclusion from the sacrament of Holy Communion.
This is a shift -- however slight -- in conservative rhetoric and tactics.
The charge used to be that Democrats were godless, a party of secularists run amok. That changed somewhere around the time when Barack Obama boomed, “We worship an awesome God in the blue states!"; progressive minister Jim Wallis became one of the best-selling authors in the country; and Americans began to reconnect with their history, including centuries of religiously motivated political causes such as abolition, women’s suffrage and the civil rights movement.
So having failed to prove that Democrats are all secularists, conservatives now assert that liberals are not religious enough. U.S. senator and former Sunday school teacher Hillary Clinton is accused of faking religion when she talks about faith. Pope Benedict XVI talks about a smaller, purer Catholic Church and the first to be counted out is Father Thomas Reese, a liberal Jesuit who was the editor of America magazine until he was forced to resign last week.
Conservative leaders use the phrase “practical secularists” to describe believers who they feel are inadequately observant. CNN host Wolf Blitzer buys into the spin and suggests on-air that conservative columnist Robert Novak is a better Catholic than the devout Paul Begala, presumably because Begala is a Democrat.
This is a debate that conservatives are going to lose. Because you don’t have to be liberal or conservative to be offended by the idea that a political or religious leader can decide whether your faith is good enough.
At East Waynesville Baptist Church, nine members were forced out of the congregation, but they have been joined by 40 others who left in solidarity, and Chandler has now resigned under pressure.
In polls last fall, even a majority of conservative Catholics said it was improper for the church to deny communion to pro-choice politicians.
No political party gets to claim God.
What’s more, Christianity teaches that no one -- not Pastor Chandler or the Catholic bishops, Bill Frist or me -- has the standing to judge the state of someone’s soul. Jesus made this abundantly clear in the Sermon on the Mount when he warned, “Judge not, lest ye yourselves be judged.”
One of the most powerful traits of the church I grew up in was that people of all ages, class backgrounds and political leanings gathered under one roof to worship together. President Bush no doubt understands the value of this as well; when he does attend church, it is usually at St. John’s Episcopal, a congregation so liberal it would make the organizers of Justice Sunday cringe. But when he refuses to speak out or distance himself from political allies who declare that the one true faith requires fealty to the Republican Party, Bush gives tacit encouragement to those who would play God.
Amy Sullivan is editor of the Washington Monthly.