Ten teachers of Christian ethics at leading seminaries and universities have written a letter to President Bush criticizing his campaign's outreach to churches, particularly its effort to gather church membership directories.
The Aug. 12 letter asked Bush to "repudiate the actions of your re-election campaign, which violated a fundamental principle of our democracy." It also urged both presidential candidates to "respect the integrity of all houses of worship."
The letter's signers included evangelical Christians who teach at generally conservative institutions, such as the Rev. George G. Hunter III of Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky and Richard V. Pierard of Gordon College in Massachusetts. Other signers included the Revs. Paul Raushenbush of Princeton University, Walter B. Shurden of Mercer University in Georgia, James M. Dunn of Wake Forest Divinity School in North Carolina and Ronald B. Flowers of Texas Christian University.
"When certain church leaders acceded to the request of the Bush/Cheney campaign to hand over the names and addresses of their congregants, they crossed a line," the letter said. "It is proper for church leaders to address social issues, but it is improper, and even illegal, for them to get their churches to endorse candidates or align their churches with a specific political party."
The Bush-Cheney campaign has defended its outreach as a "peer-to-peer" effort rather than an attempt to enlist churches in partisan electioneering, which would violate Internal Revenue Service rules. Bush supporters also charge that some African American churches routinely support Democratic candidates.
The campaign has come under growing criticism since The Washington Post reported July 1 on an instruction sheet for Bush's religious "coalition coordinators." It listed 22 duties, beginning with: "Send your Church Directory to your State Bush-Cheney '04 Headquarters" and "Identify another conservative church in your community who we can organize for Bush."
The ethicists' letter said that "Christians, individually, should prayerfully seek God's direction when voting, but when any church leaders contend that they speak for God and have the right to tell congregants how to vote, such leaders have assumed prerogatives to which they have no right."
McCain Takes Aim at Ads
This time Sen. John McCain was successful. The Arizona Republican yesterday called on John F. Kerry to condemn a new television ad that criticizes President Bush's Vietnam-era service in the Texas Air National Guard. And Kerry did.
Two weeks ago, McCain called on Bush to condemn an ad in which several veterans said Kerry had lied about his record in Vietnam. The White House declined to do so.
"I agree with Senator McCain that the ad is inappropriate," Kerry said in a statement released by his campaign about the spot being aired by the liberal group MoveOn.org. "This should be a campaign of issues, not insults."
That is what the candidate said. Just hours earlier, at a news conference organized by Kerry's campaign, retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark and retired Adm. Stansfield Turner accused Bush of using family ties to get out of combat. Kerry served and fought, Clark said. "The other man scrambled to avoid going to war."
What did the Kerry campaign have to say about that? "Those are veterans who earned the right to their opinion," spokeswoman Debra DeShong told the Associated Press.
The MoveOn.org ad urges the president to condemn the anti-Kerry ad and contends that Bush "used his father to get into the National Guard and when the chips were down went missing." Eli Pariser, executive director of the MoveOn PAC, said the two senators were entitled to their opinion but added that "the nation has a right to know whether George Bush showed up for service or not."
McCain, in an interview with the AP yesterday, called that ad "totally inappropriate" and a disservice to members of the National Guard who are "fighting and dying in Iraq."
"This is the bitterest, most unsavory campaign in the nation's history," he said. "And it's only going to get worse."
Asked whether he wanted Kerry to condemn the MoveOn.org ad, McCain replied, "Yes. It's the same line of scurrilous attack" leveled against Kerry two weeks ago.
"I wish we would stop opening wounds from a war of more than 30 years ago and talk about the war we're fighting now," McCain said. "I believe they both served honorably."