Party Appeal to Churches for Help Raises Doubts
By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK
The Bush-Cheney campaign has laid out a brisk schedule for legions of Christian supporters to help enlist "conservative churches" and their members, including sending church directories to the campaign, according to a Bush campaign document.
The document, which was reported yesterday in The Washington Post and given to The New York Times by Americans Coming Together, a left-leaning group, underscores how heavily Mr. Bush is relying on conservative Christians.
The campaign is asking conservative churches and churchgoers to do everything they can to turn their churches into bases of support without violating campaign finance laws or jeopardizing their tax-exempt status.
The effort has drawn accusations from liberals that the campaign may be inviting churches to risk accidentally or deliberately crossing the lines.
Under the heading "Coalition Coordinator: Duties," the schedule lists 22 objectives with deadlines from July 31 to Oct. 31, including sending the campaign their directories and receiving back lists of "all nonregistered church members and pro-Bush conservatives"; talking to their senior or "20-30 something" groups; asking pastors to hold a "citizenship Sunday" and voter registration drive; identifying another conservative church "who we can organize for Bush"; giving a "party for the president" with church members; recruiting up to 10 church members as volunteers; distributing "voters' guides" in the church; and posting reminders of the duty of "Christian citizens" to vote.
After earlier reports about the campaign's courtship of churches and their members, the Internal Revenue Service sent a letter to political parties reminding them that a church violates its tax-exempt status when it supports a candidate.
Legal experts say that churches are allowed to hold nonpartisan voter registration drives and that individual church members are free to lobby church acquaintances on behalf of a candidate, but that any use of church resources to support a political campaign, even a gesture like placing campaign fliers on a literature table, can run afoul of the tax-exempt requirements.
A spokesman for President Bush's campaign, Steve Schmidt, confirmed that it had distributed the document. Mr. Schmidt said the church program, including the collection of registries, was proper.
"We are collecting all kinds of lists from many different sources, and it is completely appropriate to do so," he said. "People of faith have as much right to participate in the political process as anybody else."
Liberals called the effort an exploitation of religious faith for political gain and a potential violation of privacy.
In a statement, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, president of the Interfaith Alliance, a liberal religious group in Washington, said, "As the pastor of a local congregation, if I found out that my church membership directory was shared with a campaign or political party, I would begin immediate legal action against the campaign or political party."
More theological conservatives also questioned the plan. Richard J. Mouw, president of the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., one of the largest evangelical Protestant seminaries, said: "Theologically speaking, churches are really in a position to speak truth to power. But this smacks of too close an alliance of church and Caesar."
Mr. Mouw added that the Bush campaign should not take evangelical votes for granted.
"I find," he said, "that a lot of church people, including a lot of evangelicals, are increasingly nervous about the credibility of the Bush administration on issues that a year or two ago people were ready to trust them on, like foreign policy.
"Rather than just assuming that evangelical churches are ready to hand over their membership lists, they would do much better to spend some time trying to convince us that they really do have the interests of biblical Christians at heart."
At Mr. Bush's campaign, Mr. Schmidt said he was confident of churchgoers' support for President Bush.
"There is a wide and diverse coalition formed to make sure that President Bush has a second term," he said. "The level of support is at record levels," comparable to the support for President Ronald Reagan at the same point before his re-election.
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company