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Religious campaigns to help GOP candidates fail in N.J., Virginia. (People & Events).

Religious intervention in statewide elections in New Jersey and Virginia failed last month, when voters rejected candidates supported by the Religious Right and the Roman Catholic hierarchy.

In Virginia, two Religious Right organizations produced "voter guides" on behalf of Republican gubernatorial candidate Mark Earley and other GOP nominees. TV preacher Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition claimed it distributed over a million guides, while American Renewal (the political arm of the Family Research Council) claimed to have distributed almost a million guides as well.

In New Jersey, the Christian Coalition also said it distributed over a million voter guides, which critics charged were clearly stacked to support Republican gubernatorial candidate Brett Schundler. In addition, Schundler benefited from the implicit endorsement of the state's Catholic bishops, who issued an Oct. 22 "teaching" urging Catholic voters to make abortion restrictions a priority issue. (Schundler is strongly anti-abortion.)

Despite the intervention by religious leaders, Earley and Schundler failed in their bids for public office. Earley was defeated by Democrat Mark Warner, 52 percent to 47 percent, despite the state's GOP tilt in recent years. In New Jersey, Democrat Jim McGreevy trounced Schundler by 14 points.

Americans United said there are lessons to be learned from the campaign results. "The 2001 elections demonstrated that voters make up their own minds about candidates and don't respond to religious directives," said AU's Lynn. "One can only hope these groups realize that Americans don't want our religious communities herded into partisan voting blocs."

Lynn noted that the results in Virginia are particularly stinging for the Religious Right because the state is home to TV preachers such as Robertson and Jerry Falwell. In addition to Coalition voter guides, Robertson contributed at least $35,000 to Republican Earley's campaign, according to news media accounts.

Earley, a long-time Religious Right ally, has been especially helpful to Robertson. While serving as attorney general, Early declined to prosecute Robertson for fraud when the TV preacher solicited donations for a relief plane that actually was being used for a diamond-mining operation in Africa.

AU's Lynn said he believes an increasing number of churches are refusing to hand out the Religious Right voter guides. Although the Christian Coalition maintains that its guides are "non-partisan," independent political writers have noted that the flyers are clearly skewed to favor the most conservative candidate and make it obvious which hopeful the organization favors. In some cases, candidates' views have been distorted in the guides.

The week before the guides were supposed to be distributed by houses of worship, Americans United sent letters to churches in Virginia, encouraging pastors to consider the legal and ethical consequences of distributing the slanted partisan campaign materials. (Federal tax law bars churches and other tax-exempt entities from endorsing political candidates.)

Lynn also noted the New Jersey election outcome was a blow to the Religious Right. Republican candidate Schundler has been a long-time favorite of the movement, taking a high-profile stance against abortion rights and church-state separation and favoring voucher aid to religious schools.

In addition to Coalition voter guides, Schundler also won support from the state's Catholic hierarchy. Archbishop John Myers and 10 other bishops issued a letter to the state's 3.3 million Catholics, urging them to "use their voting privilege to reflect a choice of candidates who respect and sustain the dignity of all human life" an implicit endorsement of Schundler.

(Myers is well known in the Catholic Church for his hard-line approach to politics. While serving as bishop of Peoria, Ill., in 1990, he issued a pastoral letter saying it is "morally illicit" for Catholics to vote for candidates who disagree with the church's doctrine on abortion.)

An AU press release analyzing the election results drew a curious response from William Donohue, head of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. In a League press release, Donohue accused Americans United of seeking to deny the Catholic bishops their free speech rights by asserting that they had violated the U.S. Constitution through their election intervention.

Donohue had apparently not read the AU statement very carefully. It did not accuse the bishops of violating the Constitution but merely pointed out that federal tax law bars religious and nonprofit groups from endorsing or opposing candidates for public office.

In other news about the Religious Right:

* Pat Robertson is far and away the most political of the TV preachers, according to a new analysis of television evangelism.

Stephen Winzenburg, an associate professor of communication at Grand View College in Des Moines, monitored 150 broadcasts of 22 different televangelists from September through November of 2000 and ranked them according to the amount of the time they spent discussing politics, fund-raising, ministry and promotion of the ministry.

Winzenburg found that Robertson talked about politics 34 percent of the time. D. James Kennedy came in second at 13 percent. Jack Van Impe was third at 10 percent, and James Robison was fourth at 9 percent. In fifth place was Jerry Falwell, with 7 percent.

Falwell spent more time raising money, coming in at 22 percent, putting him in third place behind Oral Roberts (27 percent) and Robison (23 percent) and just one point ahead of Robert Tilton (21 percent). Robertson was at 5 percent, and Kennedy was at 6.

As part of the study, Winzenburg contacted all of the ministries and requested financial information. He reported that half never responded, among them Robertson, Falwell and Robison. About a fourth gave a vague financial statement. The rest sent more detailed statements, but Winzenburg noted that only two ministries sent detailed financial statements in a timely manner.

Wrote Winzenburg, "In summary: few television ministries are as accountable to contributors as they could be. Few are willing to give detailed information on how your donations are spent, and most will not even give potential contributors specifics regarding who is on the board."

Winzenburg's analysis appeared in the Oct. 22 edition of Christianity Today.

* Mark DeMoss, Jerry Falwell's longtime media spokesman, has dropped the TV preacher as a client. DeMoss, who served Falwell as a spokesman for 17 years, declined to give his reasons for the move. In a statement, DeMoss said he remains friends with Falwell and that he plans to remain on the board of trustees of Falwell's Liberty University.

Some observers, however, believe DeMoss despaired of working with Falwell after the TV preacher drew national animosity for his comments about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and his later attempt to use the issue to raise money.

* Jerry Falwell is suing the city of Lynchburg in federal court over restrictions on church wealth. The TV preacher contends that state and local laws that limit the amount of land churches may own are unconstitutional. Under the law, houses of worship may own up to 15 acres of land, unless the city grants an exemption to own up to 50. It also prohibits churches from owning land worth more than $10 million.

Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church sits on 25 acres, and he is building a new sanctuary on a 60-acre plot nearby, according to news accounts.
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Publication:Church & State
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2001
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