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Group Floods Churches with Video on Bush's Faith

Tuesday, 26 October 2004 12:00 AM

"It's blatantly political," said Jeremy Leaming, spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "It looks like a Bush ad created by the RNC [Republican National Committee]."

The half-hour video, Inner Strength, is a tribute to the faith of three conservative Christian officeholders - Bush and U.S. Sens. Rick Santorum (R., Pa.) and Zell Miller (D., Ga.) - with Bush getting most of the air time.

Leaming said churches that showed the video risked running afoul of IRS rules that prohibit houses of worship and other tax-exempt entities from distributing political material "that is skewed toward one candidate" in an election.

In an interview Friday, Leaming said IRS rules required that churches be evenhanded.

"You can't just say, 'I'll show this and if a pro-Kerry one comes, we'll show that, too.' First you should take steps to get a Kerry one to balance it out."

He and other watchdogs said no film highlighting Kerry's faith existed, however. Another Bush video, George W. Bush: Faith in the White House, also is circulating in churches.

Leaming said Americans United had filed eight complaints with the IRS this year regarding church politicking. No one has contacted his group to object to Inner Strength, he said.

Hanna said no one had complained to him about the video either, and that he had gotten only raves from pastors, and requests for more copies.

Aware that the video could be seen as a hot potato, Let Freedom Ring sent pastors a statement from a Christian legal fund saying that if a church "independently decides to share the program as part of its normal course of religious exercise - such as showing it at a regular Sunday service or other group meeting - then there should be no violation of federal tax law or federal election reporting laws."

One proviso, the Alliance Defense Fund added, is that churches must avoid "active endorsement" such as through donations and distribution of campaign literature.

If a church is "threatened" by the IRS or anyone else about the video, the fund said, its lawyers would get involved.

Hanna said Let Freedom Ring had produced 12,000 copies of Inner Strength and shipped out about 11,000, along with a study guide and legal material. The $150,000 project was funded by John Templeton Jr., a retired surgeon and an evangelical Christian who chairs Hanna's organization.

The video does not use the words vote or endorse; nor does it mention Kerry, pro or con. Instead, it presents news clips and interviews to portray Bush and others as keepers of America's long faith tradition - against "those who would have those guiding lights completely snuffed out."

In one highlight, Miller, a Democrat from Georgia, said that when he had heard Bush declaring Jesus as his greatest influence, he had risen in his chair and exulted, "Thank God, here is a public official who has the strength and has the faith to proclaim this in such a public forum."

Santorum, who was interviewed for the video, appears on camera to praise Bush and to talk about the intersection of faith and politics.

"I have certain values that have been derived from my Christian identity, and I am very clear about that," the Pennsylvania Republican says. "I use that value structure in addressing the issues before me in public policy."

Santorum, in an interview Friday night, said the video was "not a political piece" but merely "a look at how three people, a Democrat and two Republicans, incorporate faith into their jobs." He dismissed the criticism as "the saber-rattling the left does to scare people into not thinking they have a right to talk. That kind of tolerance is intolerable."

Several pastors who received the video had varying reactions.

The Rev. Peter Lillback, pastor of Proclamation Presbyterian Church in Bryn Mawr, said he would not officially air the video "as a church, in the church," but had made about 200 free copies available to members of the congregation.

Lillback said he supported the project because the presence of Miller lent bipartisan balance, "it didn't call us to vote," and it had "a timeless quality" beyond the election. (Sen. Miller, although a Democrat, gave the keynote speech at the Republican National Convention this year, and has endorsed Bush.)

The Rev. Bradley Lacey of First Baptist Church in Conshohocken praised the film, but said he would not formally show it before the election because he didn't want "to potentially bring division" to the congregation in the "inflammatory" campaign season.

"I will be happy to make it available privately, but not from the pulpit," Lacey said. "That pulpit is for the gospel."

In Glen Mills, the Rev. David Wood of Emmanuel Baptist Church said he and his deacons were mulling their plans. He expressed frustration with the IRS curbs.

"It's a touchy area where people would like us to be completely silent and neutral," Wood said. "I would prefer not to have the tax-exempt status, but we are not going to violate that at this point."


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"It's blatantly political," said Jeremy Leaming, spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "It looks like a Bush ad created by the RNC [Republican National Committee]." The half-hour video, Inner Strength, is a tribute to the faith of three...
Tuesday, 26 October 2004 12:00 AM
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