Monday, October 09, 2006

Forum on Church and State in Ohio Politics: Civility and Substance

Discussants from both conservative and liberal perspectives squared off Sunday afternoon in a 90-minute forum that, although quite animated throughout and briefly contentious at points, was for the most part a model of civility and substance. I was in the audience and the quality of the exchange left me genuinely impressed.

The lineup was first-rate:

John Green, moderator, is Senior Fellow in Religion and American Politics at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. He also serves as Director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics and is Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University of Akron. Dr. Green has done extensive research on American religious communities and politics.
Phil Burress, discussant, is Executive Director of Citizens for Community Values, a Cincinnati-based grass roots organization whose mission is to promote Judeo-Christian moral values and reduce destructive behaviors contrary to those values, through education, active community partnership, and individual empowerment at the local, state and national levels. Mr. Burress and CCV led the successful 2004 Ohio constitutional amendment ballot initiative that bans same-sex marriage.
Russell Johnson, discussant, is Senior Pastor of Fairfield Christian Church in Lancaster, Ohio, and Chairman of The Ohio Restoration Project, an organization dedicated to mobilizing lay persons and "Patriot Pastors" to combat the "toxin of dogmatic secularism which has sought to deny America's Godly heritage and undermine her God-given potential."
Barry Lynn, discussant, is Executive Director, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, a non-partisan, non-sectarian organization which since 1947 has defended separation of church and state in the courts, educated legislators, and worked with the media to inform Americans about religious freedom issues and organize local chapters all over the country.
Marcus Owens, discussant, is counsel to All Saints Episcopal Church of Pasadena, California and former Director, Exempt Organizations, Internal Revenue Service, was instrumental in formulating a recent complaint to the IRS concerning questionable partisan political activities by two central Ohio churches.
Jay Sekulow, discussant, is Director of the American Center for Law and Justice, a Washington-based organization founded by Pat Robertson in 1990. Through its work in the courts and the legislative arena,it is dedicated to protecting religious and constitutional freedoms. The ACLJ specializes in constitutional law and has argued several cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. During the past six years Mr. Sekulow has become closely linked to the Bush administration and is the leading Supreme Court advocate of the Christian Right.
Eric Williams, discussant, is lead spokesperson for the fifty-six central Ohio religious leaders who recently sent letters to the IRS complaining of partisan political activities by two central Ohio churches. Rev. Williams serves as senior pastor of North Congregational United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio.

The forum began with the two pastors, Russell Johnson and Eric Williams, speaking for eight minutes each on what they saw as the key issues at stake. Johnson emphasized America's "tremendous heritage of faith" stretching from early colonial times to the present." He noted that references to God and recognizably Judeo-Christian values were embedded in the country's founding documents, and averred that much of the country's success could be traced to the efforts of faith-based people to redress wrongs and improve the society. During the past fifty years, however, an unprecedented wave of "secular bigotry" had rolled over the land. "Forces of darkness" were attempting to "muzzle people of faith." The religious left, Johnson believed, had aided and abetted the secular left in this effort.

Johnson held that the religious left had long been involved in politics in precisely the same ways that the religious right was doing. He mentioned specifically Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rev. Al Sharpton. The religious right, however, was being "demonized" for its efforts in the apparent hope that it could be intimidated into silence. He concluded by saying that both the religious left and right ought to be active in the civic arena.

Eric Williams opened by stressing the need to respect and honor people of other faith traditions. Like Johnson, he looked to history to frame the issues at stake, but took as his touchstones such people as Roger Williams, who was banished from the 17th century Puritan Massachusetts Bay colony for arguing that the colony had grievously erred by effectively merging church and state. He noted the fears of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson that a group of powerful churches might succeed in influencing government sufficiently so as to foist its own religious views on others. He quoted the clause of the First Amendment that reads, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." He also quoted former president Jimmy Carter, who, in his book America's Endangered Values, agreed with Roger Williams about the abuses that arise when religion becomes entangled with government.

For the next hour, the six discussants responded to a series of prepared questions served up to them by moderator John Green. Three of the discussants -- Johnson, Philip Burress, and John Sekulow -- essentially represented the conservative side of the debate. Johnson and Burress believed that their organizations, the Ohio Restoration Project and Citizens for Community Values respectively, were observing Internal Revenue Service guidelines concerning the political involvement of 501c(3) organizations (churches, etc.). They were engaged in voter mobilization, dissemination of voter guides, and issues advocacy (all legal activities) but not endorsement of specific candidates (which the IRS guidelines prohibit). Sekulow considered the IRS guidelines too vague and cumbersome to be anything but mischievous, and thought the rule prohibiting churches from supporting or endorsing candidates should be eliminated.

The other three discussants -- Williams, Marcus Owens, and Barry Lynn -- represented the liberal side of the debate, or at least the side preferring a robust separation between church and state.

At the end of an hour, moderator John Green asked the discussants to respond to selected questions submitted by audience members on 3x5 index cards.

Probably the most substantive part of the discussion dealt with the IRS investigation of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California. The IRS accused the church of violating the prohibition against partisan political activity during a 2004 pre-election sermon which notionally portrayed Jesus Christ as addressing George W. Bush and condemning him for the policy that had led the United States to attack Iraq. Owens is serving as legal counsel for the church; Johnson -- whose Ohio Restoration Project is the target of a complaint to the IRS lodged by thirty-one clergy, notably including Eric Williams -- hoped Owens would be so good as to defend his organization in the same way. Sekulow read extensively from the sermon and used it to help make his point that the IRS were a hopeless muddle.

As I've said, the forum was for the most part a model of civility and substance. Its most contentious moments occurred when Johnson pointedly asked Williams a number of questions. Why had Williams organized and filed a letter of complaint with the IRS without first approaching Johnson in accordance with the scriptural injunction for Christians to resolve their differences among themselves? Would Williams refuse to endorse Lincoln, even though Lincoln freed the slaves? Did Williams oppose the prayers said by Amish schoolchildren in the wake of a recent, brutal series of murders of school grounds in Pennsylvania?

On this last question, Johnson briefly got the better of Williams, who remained doggedly on message in a fashion reminiscent of Michael Dukakis in 1988 when asked if he would favor the death penalty for someone who had raped and killed his wife. But Barry Lynn spoke up and said that questions like the prayers in extremis of Amish schoolchildren "always arise on the edge of these great questions." But when the religious right tries to abridge abortion, squelch equal rights for gays, and arguably establish a de facto theocracy, Lynn continued, he was disposed to stick with his critique of the religious right and "give a pass to the Amish kids."

Photos taken during and after the forum are available here.

Streaming video of the forum (in .mov format; about 90 minutes)


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