A Bush-Cheney campaign initiative that targets churches - particularly conservative churches - is attracting criticism from across the spectrum of Baptist life. And rightly so.
The campaign has provided coalition coordinators with a sheet asking them to:
-- "Send your church directory to your state Bush-Cheney '04 headquarters or give [it] to a BC04 field rep.
-- "Identify another conservative church in your community who you can organize for Bush.
-- "Talk to your pastor about holding a Citizenship Sunday and voter registration drive.
-- "Begin to organize a voter registration drive at your church.
-- "Talk to your church's seniors or 20-30-something group about Bush/Cheney '04.
-- "Finish calling all pro-Bush members of your church and encourage them to vote."
According to Baptist Press, the strategy sheet also instructs coordinators to host on two occasions a "party for the president" with church members and to distribute voter guides on the two Sundays before the election. The instructions list 22 responsibilities and deadlines.
Richard Land, who particularly objects to providing church directories to partisan campaigns, makes a distinction between churches initiating voter registration drives and providing information about the issues and a partisan campaign to "seek to come into the church and do a voter registration drive and distribute campaign literature."
Land called the surrender of church directories to campaign operatives "a violation of the trust of your fellow church members and of the body collectively, just as it would be inappropriate to share it with a marketing group."
Richard Cizik, vice president of governmental affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals, responded: "[W]hen party officials, whether Republican or Democrat, do that, it's simply the obligation of church members to determine what is appropriate, ethical and legal and to say, 'No.'"
Phil Strickland, director of the Baptist General Convention of Texas' Christian Life Commission, gave this assessment: "Politicians and political parties will inevitably be looking for ways to transform a place of worship to a place of partisan politics. When that happens, the churches move from worshiping to campaigning. And that is not the role of the church."
Churches that move from dealing aggressively with issues to supporting candidates put their tax-exempt status at risk, Strickland said.
Bush-Cheney campaign spokespersons have defended the strategy to involve churches in partisan politics, and apparently they have no plans to back away from it.
Land, Cizik and Strickland are correct in their alarm. Members should be extremely hesitant to provide church mailing lists in any form to a partisan campaign.
Churches in the Baptist tradition have long held that members have the responsibility before God to gather the best information on any matter and, before God, make the best decision. In the healthiest congregations, members have respected even those who may come to different conclusions, even in elections.
Baptists have long championed the biblical model of prophets as appropriate for those who preach from their pulpits. Prophets must be free from political entanglements if they are to effectively speak a prophetic word from time to time.
Finally, anyone who would ask a church to do anything that could jeopardize the congregation's status as an Internal Revenue Service tax-exempt entity does not have the best interests of the church or its members at heart.
In matters such as this, no matter which party makes such a request, Cizik is right. Just say, "No!"