New York Times visits Mizzoo red pews: And the blue?

save_marriageDavid D. Kirkpatrick is back, with another scary story on the “issues that moral conservatives argue about” beat at the New York Times.

This report — entitled “Churches See an Election Role and Spread the Word on Bush” — is an example of an interesting trend on this beat. This story includes no reaction whatsoever from voices on the religious and cultural left. You read that right, with one possible interesting exception, Kirkpatrick has built an entire report in the Times on voices from the right.

And what a frightening missive this is, centering on conservative flocks in the pivotal swing state called Missouri. Out there in the red pews, people even say things like this:

Susanne Jacobsmeyer, a member of the West County Assembly of God in a St. Louis suburb, voted for George W. Bush four years ago, but mostly out of loyalty as a Republican and not with much passion.

This year, Ms. Jacobsmeyer is a “team leader” in the Bush campaign’s effort to turn out conservative Christian voters. “This year I am voting for him as a man of faith,” she said over breakfast after an early morning service. “He has proven that he will do what is right, and he will look to God first.”

Jan Klarich, her friend and another team leader, agreed. “Don’t you feel it is a spiritual battle?” she asked to nods around the table.

Yes, lock up the “Fresh Air” coffee mugs! There are people out there in Middle America using their free speech rights to talk about “spiritual warfare” related to politics and moral disputes. The pastor of this church prays for the president — in the pulpit — every week and has even preached sermons in opposition to abortion, stem cell research and same-sex marriage. The congregation has formed a more than symbolic “moral action team” — with 12, count ‘em, 12 — members. This squad of disciples even registers voters.

These actions have had consequences, noted Kirkpatrick.

Before Missouri voted last week to add a ban on same-sex marriage to the state’s Constitution and keep in place a restriction on gambling, the church newsletter endorsed both measures so vigorously that the post office denied the church its usually discounted postal rate for engaging in political activity.

Now, there are all kinds of valid questions that can be asked at this point, because this story is build on a crucial church-state legal conflict that is not new. For years, lawyers on the lifestyle left have argued that the Roman Catholic Church has often blurred the line between legal advocacy on moral and cultural issues and improper advocacy of specific political candidates. Call any church-state think tank — left or right — and they will tell you this. Kirkpatrick mentions this issue, but does not call in a balanced squad of church-state authorities to update us on the status of this conflict.

Once again, the problem is that American political life these days is rooted in conflicts over moral issues such as legalized abortion and the redefinition of marriage. In other words, traditional/orthodox churches cannot be silent because there are 2,000 years of tradition out there that affect their beliefs on these issues. However, these issues also create political wars in an age in which the U.S. Supreme Court is pondering postmodern theories about the meaning of the universe and its impact on Constitutional law. (The Baptist Press photo with this post is from a Missouri rally on marriage.)

Here’s another question: Are these conflicts present in other churches? We can tell that Kirkpatrick knows about this conflict because he touches it, then drops it like a hot skillet.

Socially conservative pastors and priests are wrestling with their potentially pivotal role in the tight presidential race. In interviews with more than a dozen religious leaders in the St. Louis area, several said they felt a duty to speak up for what they consider biblical values like opposition to abortion and same sex-marriage. Some also mentioned the longstanding role of African-American pastors in encouraging their members to vote for Democrats.

This is an interesting issue. What are the facts here? Are there investigations of the tax-status of churches on the left as well as the right? What do the new religious activists at the Democratic Party have to say about all of this? Are these probes of conservative churches — I wonder if there are liberals monitoring and/or taping sermons out there — linked to political-action groups with ties to the Democrats? Just asking.

Finally, there is a chance that Kirkpatrick needs to head down to Nashville and Dallas and look up a good church historian to get some background on Southern Baptist history. You see, there are Southern Baptists on the left side of this conflict — think Bill Clinton and Al Gore — and when you quote them, it might help to remind New York Times readers of this reality. I mention this because of the following paragraph in the story, noting that some of the pastors were nervous about Iraq, tax cuts and other issues.

“I don’t see how a president could call on so many young men and women to sacrifice in our nation’s service and not call the rest of us to sacrifice financially as well,” said Rudy Pulido, pastor of Southwest Baptist Church, a member of the theologically conservative Southern Baptist Convention, and the president of the local chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Now there is another group on the left that loves to be quoted and has tons of information — Americans United. Call them up. This is the rare New York Times story that lacks a left wing and urgently needs one.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.