Religious views play role in shaping political agendas

2 cases suggest influence churches have on process

The Mesa Tribune/August 12, 1998
By Dan Nowicki

Mothers warn their children to stay out of arguments over politics or religion.

Two recent incidents have Arizonans talking about both, raising the question of what role religion should play in public policy issues for elected officials.

The Catholic Sun, a newspaper published by the Roman Catholic-Diocese of Phoenix, editorially admonished Rep. Ed Pastor, D-Ariz., for his continued support of abortion rights. The August 6th editorial called on Pastor "to change his heart—and his voting record—on abortion" or else "disavow his Catholic faith."

State Rep. Mark Anderson, R-Mesa, is catching flak for the opposite reason. Some critics are charging that he has been letting the political agenda of his religion's leader, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, dictate his legislative activities at the state Capitol. Various documents obtained by The Tribune and first reported earlier this week indicate Anderson's and Moon's policy priorities frequently intersect.

Some political observers said it once appeared the religion issue died with the election of President John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic to win that post. At the time, many Kennedy critics warned of an ominous Vatican-White House connection.

"I don't think it sells politically nowadays. I don't think people are frightened any more by bogeymen," said Sam Steiger, a former congressman who now contributes commentary for The Tribune and hosts a weekday morning show on KUSK-TV in Prescott.

"I don't think Pastor is going to quake in his boots because the official church organ is chastising him," he said. "My own personal sense is that maybe we really did bury it with Kennedy, although it may never go away completely."

Christopher Gunty, associate publisher of the 13-year-old Catholic Sun, said reader response to the Pastor editorial has been significant. The paper's rebuke came after Pastor's most recent vote to uphold President Clinton's veto of a congressional ban on a late term procedure foes call "partial birth abortion."

"Some feel that we shouldn't be meddling in politics, but others are very appreciative of the stance that we took in the editorial last week," Gunty said. "I've even gotten some e-mails from folks who are not our readers, but who (heard about the editorial) and wrote in and said, You know, I think it's great that somebody is taking a stand.' "

The emotional response is the same whenever the paper takes on hot-button public controversies that divide the Catholic laity, such as welfare reform, gun control, immigration and especially capital punishment, Gunty said. The paper lists the Rev. Thomas O'Brien, bishop of the diocese, as its publisher.

Pastor still is declining to talk about the Catholic Sun editorial, said Maura Saavedra, his press secretary.

State House Speaker Jeff Groscost, a Mormon Republican from Mesa, noted that his church recently put out a nonpartisan "directive" encouraging its members to get involved politically.

Groscost said it's no coincidence that devout Mormon and Catholic lawmakers often have similar voting records on social issues such as abortion. It has to do with commonly shared "moral values" rather than any specific church-related agenda, he said.

"Are those (moral values) related to our religious beliefs? I think that anybody who tells you no would be lying to your face," Groscost said.

Eric Wertheimer, an assistant professor of American Studies at Arizona State University West said today's right-left "cultural wars" have created a new arena in which religion and politics often mix.

"I would be hesitant to say that it's 'gotten better' since Kennedy," Wertheimer said. "I just think certain contexts have changed, certain pressures have changed."

Steiger noted that plenty of secular "control freaks" abounds in American politics, too. Still, he said Anderson may pay a political price for failing to be more up-front about his relationship with Moon's Unification Church, he said.

"In fact, I urged him to announce it when he first ran, and he was just reluctant to, and I can understand that," Steiger said. "But I said, 'At some point it will surface and then you will be perceived as trying to have attempted to hide it.'"

John Crawford, an associate professor of communication at Arizona State University who studies cults and related movements, said the Unification Church — long under fire for questionable recruiting and fund-raising tactics — hasn't really mainstreamed itself in the way the Mormons, Methodists and other groups once considered to be unorthodox have.

Crawford also said he wouldn't be surprised by direct parallels, between Anderson's legislative work and Moon's agenda.

"Their whole doctrine is they are being given direct guidance from a living savior," Crawford said. "So why the heck would he be off on his own doing anything?"

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