Video: Politics and the church

By Chief foreign affairs correspondent
NBC News
updated 7/19/2004 9:17:11 PM ET 2004-07-20T01:17:11

They are a powerful pool of likely Bush voters: religious conservatives in churches across the country.

"If there were ever a time that the voices of the church needed to be heard in the halls of government, it's today," says Rev. Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council.

Last week, 6,500 people in Memphis' Bellevue Baptist Church heard a political message.  As many as one-million more watched it on a live broadcast to 500 other congregations.

But now, the Bush-Cheney campaign is going even further.  In a memo, the campaign has asked ministers to send their church directory to campaign headquarters in order to reach church members directly.  Even some ministers supporting Bush say that crosses a line that should not be bridged.

"When I heard about it, I was appalled.  And I continue to be appalled.  It's a direct intrusion and an inappropriate intrusion into the internal life of churches,” says the Southern Baptist Convention's Dr. Richard Land.

That isn't all.  Evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell are endorsing the Bush-Cheney ticket on their Web sites and from the pulpit.  "If we get every Christian in America to register to vote we're going to be very happy with the outcome, because they vote right,” says Falwell.

Falwell defends his actions, saying they are personal endorsements, not the church's.  “I do believe that pastors, religious leaders, men of God, women of God may in fact voice their personal opinions, as I often do, but only as private citizens," he says.

But Barry Lynn, who heads Americans United for Separation of Church and State, has asked the IRS to revoke the tax exempt status of Falwell's ministries.  "Falwell is playing a shell game that wouldn’t work in a backwoods carnival.  It’s all about electing George Bush and using the church to do it," says Lynn.

Falwell’s response?  Look at the Democrats.  Vice presidential candidate Sen. John Edwards, D-NC, spent Sunday at an AME church in Orlando, Florida.  And Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. John Kerry, of Massachusetts spoke at a black church April 4 in Boston.

The Bush campaign says what it is doing is completely legal.  “We think that people of faith should be encouraged to participate in the political process,” says Terry Holt of Bush-Cheney 2004.

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