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Bill O’Leary — The Washington Post

The post-mortem stories on the role of the evangelicals keep coming. Today’s WP follows up on stories from the summer about BC04 attempting to get church mailing lists for its use. This clearly could place a church’s tax-exempt status in jeopardy. But, as their campaign slogan goes, Whatever It Takes.

The more interesting point of the story, however, is something many of us probably thought — the religious right was actually driving this campaign even further rightward, apparently to the dismay of some in the BC04 camp. It was like a runaway train that they hitched a ride on. Now they have to figure out how not to be on board when it jumps the tracks.

As the presidential race was heating up in June and July, a pair of leaked documents showed that the Bush-Cheney reelection campaign was urging Christian supporters to turn over their church directories and was seeking to identify “friendly congregations” in battleground states.

Those revelations produced a flurry of accusations that the Bush campaign was leading churches to violate laws against partisan activities by tax-exempt organizations, and even some of the White House’s closest religious allies said the campaign had gone too far.

Evangelical Christians, such as these activists, were often urged by churches to vote their convictions.

But the untold story of the 2004 election, according to national religious leaders and grass-roots activists, is that evangelical Christian groups were often more aggressive and sometimes better organized on the ground than the Bush campaign. The White House struggled to stay abreast of the Christian right and consulted with the movement’s leaders in weekly conference calls. But in many respects, Christian activists led the charge that GOP operatives followed and capitalized upon.

…Nationally, the backdrop for the mobilization of social conservatives fell into place when Massachusetts’s highest court sanctioned same-sex marriage in November.

Some Christian leaders perceived not only a threat to biblical morality, but also a winning political issue. Same-sex marriage “is different from abortion,” said the Rev. Ronnie Floyd, pastor of First Baptist Church of Springdale, Ark. “It touches every segment of society, schools, the media, television, government, churches. No one is left out.”

Yet Bush was slow to endorse a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and a woman. In a January conference call, Rove promised impatient Christian leaders that an endorsement would be forthcoming, and it finally came Feb. 24, nearly two weeks after same-sex couples began lining up for nuptials in San Francisco.

…Some Democrats suspected that the ballot initiatives were engineered by Rove and the GOP, but religious activists say otherwise. In Michigan, state Sen. Alan Cropsey (R) introduced a bill to ban same-sex marriage in October 2003 and assumed it would have the support of his party. Instead, the Roman Catholic Church in Michigan became the amendment’s main booster, spending nearly $1 million to secure its passage.

“I couldn’t say anything publicly, because I would have been blasted for it, but the Republican Party was not helpful at all,” Cropsey said. “It’s not like they were the instigators. They were the Johnny-come-latelies, if anything.”

Michael Howden, executive director of Stronger Families for Oregon, said it was a similar situation in his state. “There’s been no contact whatsoever, no coordinating, no pushing” by anyone at the White House or in the Bush campaign, he said.

Charles W. Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries, recalled a meeting early this year when Christian leaders warned White House aides that the marriage issue was likely to appear on state ballots and be a factor in the presidential election. “The White House guys were kind of resisting it on the grounds that ‘We haven’t decided what position we want to take on that,’ ” he said.

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding