The Religious Right was popularly portrayed as a chief supporter for Republican efforts to curtail filibusters against President Bush's judicial nominees. But the Religious Left was just as outspoken in supporting filibusters, even while hypocritically chastising Senate Republican leader William Frist for supposedly injecting religion into the issue.
Characteristic of the Religious Left's vituperations was a letter of protest to Senator Frist from the presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America:
"The rhetoric that some people of faith -- Republicans, conservatives, or fundamentalists -- 'have it right' and all other people of faith have it wrong not only is self righteous, but inappropriately polarizes people of faith for political purposes," said Bishop Mark Hanson.
Hanson accused Frist of "political manipulation" for allegedly judging the faith of some based on their politics. But only a month earlier, Hanson was questioning the faith of President Bush and his supporters based on the administration's budget proposals, which reduced the rate of increase in some social welfare programs.
"The Administration's proposed federal budget priorities stand in contradiction to the Biblical tradition," Hanson adamantly declared in a March 8 statement. Bush's proposals must be condemned because of the religious obligation to "name injustice and immorality when it threatens God's mission in the world." There could no compromise, Hanson insisted, because "the Biblical standard is irrefutable."
Religious Left activists have wielded often harsh religious rhetoric in their political crusades for decades, dating back to the Vietnam War, usually without much media attention, much less criticism. But even the mildest religious rhetoric from conservative activists excites dread of "theocracy," as Religious Left activist Jim Wallis described conservative religious support for conservative judges.
NOT SURPRISINGLY, THE National Council of Churches (NCC) led the way in excoriating the ostensible threat of theocracy posed by President Bush, Senator Frist and conservative religious people who support Bush's judicial nominees.
"Their attempt to impose on the entire country a narrow, exclusivist, private view of truth is a dangerous, divisive tactic," intoned Bob Edgar, the United Methodist minister and former Democratic congressman who heads the chronically left-leaning NCC.
According to Edgar, "to brand any group of American citizens as 'anti-Christian' simply because they differ on political issues runs counter to the values of both faith and democracy." Of course, he did not name anybody who had branded him as "anti-Christian." Sanctimoniously, in a press release, Edgar said he would be praying for Senator Frist and his religious allies, so that the Lord will "change their hearts" and prevent them from committing the nation to a "destructive path."
Edgar bemoaned that Frist's anti-filibuster campaign had dangerously detoured through "church-state territory." He did not explain how this differed from his own NCC activism to use religion for a wide array of liberal causes, from anti-U.S. military efforts, to opposing welfare reforms, to pushing for increased environmental regulation.
So distressed were Edgar and other Religious Left organizers about Frist's 4-minute address in April to a Family Research Council teleconference that they organized their own conference call with journalists. Normally, the NCC gets little media play. But this time, it got front-page coverage on the New York Times.
According to the Times analysis, Frist potentially was "violating the principles of his own Presbyterian church" by seeking support from religious conservatives. "Elected officials should not be portraying public policies as being for or against people of faith," the article quoted Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Stated Clerk Cliffton Kirkpatrick, a conference call participant, as saying.
EVEN WHILE CONDEMNING religious conservatives, Religious Left groups were trying to mimic their populist success. The NCC's Edgar said his office had sent 44,000 faxes to Capitol Hill in response to the controversy over Bush's judicial nominees. The lobby offices of the United Church of Christ (UCC) and the United Methodist Church also joined in.
"Most alarming has been the abuse of religious claims by those seeking to eliminate the filibuster," complained the UCC's "Take Action!" website, which ominously referred to the "troubling civil rights records" of several Bush judicial nominees. "Misusing faith in this way is reprehensible," agreed United Methodist lobbyist Jim Winkler about Senator Frist, even as Winkler urged liberal Methodists to lobby in favor of filibusters.
For the Religious Left, as for religious conservatives, the judicial fight has been a political organizing tool. The NCC's Bob Edgar told Religion News Service he wants to redefine "moral values" to include liberal perspectives on poverty, the environment and health care. According to Edgar, the NCC wants to reach "middle-church, middle-mosque, and middle-synagogue," with a message that transcends "fear, fundamentalism and Fox News."
But Edgar and other Religious Left activists resorted to fear and religious zeal when, in March, they condemned President Bush's budget proposals. "Jesus makes clear that perpetrating economic injustice is among the gravest of sins," intoned their joint ecumenical statement signed by the officers of five mainline Protestant denominations. As words of warning to Bush, they cited the Gospel of Luke's reference to a rich man in Hell crying out for mercy after a life of indifference to the poor, and they urged church members to "do justice" by "opposing this budget."
Senator Frist never implied anyone might go to Hell because of their votes on President Bush's judicial nominees. Damnation is apparently a penalty only for opposing liberal political causes.
Mark Tooley is United Methodist director at the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C.
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