As the election season gets ready to move into high gear, evangelical Christian leaders are launching voter registration drives in some battleground states, including Ohio and Minnesota. They're concerned that discontent with the Republican Party could suppress voter turnout among conservatives. But at least one congregation won't be taking part. The pastor of an evangelical church in Minnesota has taken a stand against politicking in the pulpit.
The Reverend Gregory Boyd oversees a congregation of 4,000 at Woodland Hills Church in suburban St. Paul. The services are full of prayer and song which bring worshippers to their feet during a good portion of the Sunday morning services.
But the church isn't as big as it used to be. About 1,000 people, 20 percent of the congregation, walked out two years ago during the last presidential election. Boyd had banned the distribution of political pamphlets, the announcement of political rallies and refused to introduce political candidates from the pulpit.
Then he laid out his stance in a six-week series of sermons, called "The Cross and the Sword." In it he explained why he believes the church and the state should be separate. "They're not only strange bedfellows," he told his congregation, "they're impossible bedfellows. You can't the government can't establish a state religion. American religious leaders may speak freely about political issues, but they risk losing their tax-exempt status if they get too involved in the political process.
Boyd, who turned his sermons into a book, The Myth of a Christian Nation, says he's not opposed to Christians voting or exercising their civic rights. But he says even Christians can have a difference of opinion about how much of a role religion should play in government. "When someone slaps the label 'Christian' on their particular way of voting, they bring all the messiness of politics into the church, they've just alienated all the people in the culture who may not believe in their perspectives, they've compromised their gospel."
But not everyone agrees. According to the Reverend Rick Scarborough, the founder and president of Vision America, a Texas-based evangelical organization, "What they're trying to do is say if you're a Christian, you should check your faith at the door when it comes to matters of public policy, matters of public debate. And I out of hand reject that."
Scarborough has written a book called, In Defense of Mixing Church and State. He says religion and politics can not -- and should not -- be separate. In fact, he has helped get Christian fundamentalists elected to many of his local city council seats, the school board and other offices.
"Our founding fathers would turn over in their grave if they saw how the First Amendment has been twisted to mean pastors should be silent on these great moral issues of our day," he says. "And when they have a political application he must apply the truth to that political issue. This is a clear case of rightness and wrongness."
Still, it's not that clear for some evangelicals who are beginning to question their close alignment with political parties. A recent public opinion poll shows that fewer Americans see the Republican Party as "friendly to religion," even though many Republican candidates courted the so-called Christian right during the last election cycle. And some members of fundamentalist churches are wondering if their conservative religious principles are being compromised by ties to political parties.
Barry Lynn, an ordained minister, says they're right to raise those questions. Lynn heads the watchdog group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. He says both the Democrats and Republicans have wrongly used religion for their partisan political purposes. But he warns that churches may have more to lose than politicians when the two mix. "We never complained about churches -- even if we disagree with their policy position -- talking about it or using the church to organize about issues. But when you skate over that and into the arena of partisan endorsement of candidates, you violated the tax laws, you've put your churches' tax exemption in jeopardy, and you've also guaranteed that you're going to have fights within the congregation over the propriety of doing so."
Lynn says asking people to vote as part of their civic duty is one thing. Telling them how to vote is something else.