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Issue Date:  September 24, 2004

Religious political advocates refute partisanship charge


There’s a new dirty word in politics: “surrogate.”

Democrats charge, for example, that the “Swift Boat Boys” act as agents of the Bush campaign, however much they plead their independence.

Republicans, meanwhile, see the millions poured into political advertising by and other such “527 groups” as evidence of illegal collusion between the Kerry campaign and Bush-hating liberals.

Among Bush campaign surrogates, said Shaun Casey, Wesley Theological Seminary assistant professor of Christian ethics, is the New York-based Catholic League for Civil and Religious Rights. A simple peek at the group’s Web site will demonstrate their overt support for Bush, said Casey.

If the Catholic League is a “surrogate,” said Ethics and Public Policy Center vice president Michael Cromartie, Casey’s co-panelist at an Aug. 30 discussion of religion and politics, then so is Sojourners, the Washington-based Christian ministry that aims to “proclaim and practice the biblical call to integrate spiritual renewal and social justice.”

There’s some evidence for Casey’s view. On the league’s Web site, 12 of 24 news releases issued between July 2 and Sept. 8 are explicitly critical of John Kerry or Democrats. None challenge President Bush or the Republican Party. Among those releases were four in which league president William Donohue criticized the appointment of the Rev. Brenda Bartella Peterson as senior religion adviser to the Democratic National Committee. Peterson provoked Donohue’s wrath because she signed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Michael Newdow, the California atheist who argued that “under God” should be removed from the Pledge of Allegiance.

She resigned her national committee position shortly after Donohue began his campaign against her.

Previously, in late June, Donohue criticized the Kerry campaign for hiring Mara Vanderslice as director of religious outreach. Vanderslice kept her job, but plans to make her the campaign’s public point person on religious issues were shelved.

Donohue, however, denies he’s in the tank for the Bush campaign.

“Clearly I’m not an enthusiast for Kerry these days,” Donohue told NCR, citing the senator’s pro-choice views. “But I don’t trust the Republicans” and “I’m not interested in making the Catholic League an analog to the Christian Coalition, which is the Christian arm of the Republican Party.”

That lack of trust dates back to at least early 2000, recalled Donohue, when the league was harshly critical of Republican efforts to deny a Catholic priest the job of chaplain to the House of Representatives. “A number of prominent Catholic Republican conservatives got on my case very strongly and told me to back off -- that I was hurting the Catholic cause,” recalled Donohue. He continued, “Some of these people expect everyone to line up single file and report to duty and [resent it when] they find out you’re independent, even though you share some of their philosophical opinions.”

Still, Donohue, a registered Independent, is aware of the perception that he’s taking marching orders from the Republican National Committee or the Bush campaign. “I’m getting flak from my own members” about it, he said. Some of that goes back to his attacks on Vanderslice and Peterson.

“I got two scalps and I’m proud of that,” said Donohue. But to those who suspect he’s coordinating his activities with Republican operatives -- that, for example, the information on Vanderslice and Peterson was fed to him -- Donohue scoffs. He says he used publicly available databases -- Google and LexisNexis -- to get the information. “If I depended on those [Republican Party] dopes,” said Donohue, nothing would have happened.

The Rev. Jim Wallis, executive director of Sojourners, is equally adamant that Sojourners and Call to Renewal, its sister organization, are nonpartisan operations. “There is no coordination whatsoever between Sojourners, Call to Renewal and the Kerry campaign,” said Wallis.

In fact, said Wallis, he has consistently argued, “the Democrats should not make the same mistake the Republicans have made, which is to co-opt the religious community for a partisan agenda.” Religion, said Wallis, “serves us best when it is not ideologically predictable or loyally partisan.”

That nonpartisanship was most recently demonstrated, said Wallis, in the full-page advertisement Sojourners sponsored in The New York Times. That ad -- headlined “God is Not a Republican. Or a Democrat.” -- said, “Sincere Christians and other people of faith can choose to vote for President Bush or Senator Kerry -- for reasons deeply rooted in their faith.”

But nonpartisanship does not preclude harsh criticism of the religious right. “They’re not just endorsing George Bush, they’re ordaining George Bush as God’s candidate,” Wallis said of such religious right leaders as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.

And nonpartisanship doesn’t preclude criticism or praise related to issues. Wallis opposes abortion rights and has criticized Democrats on that and other issues. “I’ve challenged the Democrats on not being champions for the poor [and many Democrats] have been weak and unclear on Iraq.”

The Iraq war, it seems, is to the religious left what abortion is to the religious right. “George Bush’s war in Iraq violates fundamental Christian ethics and values and he should be held electorally accountable for that,” said Wallis.

“The pope opposes the war on religious grounds,” said Wallis. “Does that make him a surrogate for John Kerry?”

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, September 24, 2004

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