Faith, politics and intolerance

Posted: May 16, 2005

Consider Christianity.

It is a faith broad enough to encompass everything from a pope in Rome to a missionary in South America to a snake handler in Appalachia.

Apparently, however, it is not broad enough to encompass a Democrat in North Carolina.

That, at least, is the inference to be gleaned from the experience of nine people who say they were kicked out of their church last week because they voted for John Kerry in the 2004 election. The nine former members of East Waynesville Baptist say the Rev. Chan Chandler led the drive to oust them. The resulting uproar has made headlines nationwide and drawn harsh criticism, even from other clergy. Chandler initially denied the accusations and characterized the flap as a "misunderstanding."

The claim is undercut by his own words. Last week, ABC News played an audiotape of an October sermon in which the preacher said, "If you vote for John Kerry this year, you need to repent or resign. You have been holding back God's church way too long."

Chandler stepped down a few days ago.

For the record, it was the senator's stand on abortion that got the preacher's dander up. Kerry supports a woman's right to choose. The senator explained during the campaign that, though he is a Catholic, and though the Catholic church opposes abortion, "What is an article of faith for me is not something that I can legislate on somebody who doesn't share that article of faith." In other words, Kerry believed it necessary to separate his religious views from his obligations as a legislator.

That's a separation we once regarded as necessary to the functioning of a pluralistic society, but it's not one many religious conservatives feel compelled to make these days. It's telling that when another Catholic ran for president 45 years ago - a fellow named Kennedy - he was required to assure anxious voters that he would not allow personal faith to dictate public policy.

How times change.

Some have said the moral here is that preachers should concentrate on saving souls and leave politics out of the pulpit. I disagree. Certainly, preachers should not lend their moral authority to political parties or candidates, or make churches into campaign headquarters. But it's a fallacy to believe social and political issues should never be discussed inside church walls. Had that been the case, there could never have been a civil rights movement.

So what galls me about the Rev. Chandler's behavior is not that he talked politics per se, but that he assumes belief in God and belief in George W. to be synonymous. As one who believes in a God who is above party, I find that assumption offensive. But you hear it a lot these days. The right wing has cornered the market on God, evidence of both its marketing savvy and the left wing's illiteracy in the language of faith.

If you grew up, as I did, in an era when Christian meant, among other things, long-haired kids with denim-covered Bibles, you have to marvel that it now becomes the exclusive property of those who believe in big business and tax cuts. You have to marvel, too, at the ruthlessness with which they seek to enforce that lockstep mentality. Beg pardon, but it's none of Chan Chandler's business how anyone votes.

Frankly, what he did makes no sense even if you buy his reasoning. I mean, assuming a vote for Kerry were incompatible with Christian faith, what better place for such errant people to be, than in a church? As a wise person once said, a church is not a museum for saints; it is a hospital for sinners.

But too often these days, it seems to be neither, seems to be little more than a refuge for human meanness, pettiness, partisanship and smug self-satisfaction.

One is embarrassed to have to remind such people of what ought to be patently obvious:

God is not a Republican.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

Leonard Pitts Jr. (lpitts@herald.com) appears regularly.

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