The pastor of a Baptist church in North Carolina who used his pulpit to urge the faithful to support President George Bush has resigned after nine members of his congregation accused him of throwing them out over their political beliefs.
The controversy over Chan Chandler, the church's 33-year-old preacher who once described John Kerry as a "non-Christian" who "kills babies", has ignited a national debate over the growing politicisation of America's religious institutions - itself a symptom of the ever more poisonous divide between Republicans and Democrats.
The Rev Chandler's resignation on Tuesday evening came as a surprise to his supporters in the tiny town of East Waynesville, because he had previously sought to deny that he had tried to throw out anyone. However, an audio tape of one of his sermons has him clearly telling his congregation that anyone who planned to vote for Senator Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate, needed to "repent or resign".
The nine aggrieved congregants all said they were explicitly told their presence was no longer welcome. One of them, Edith Nichols, said she and her husband had been warned: "Those that did not support Bush needed to leave, that they were sinners that believed in abortion and all the wrong things."
American churches are not allowed to give voting instructions to their congregations, first because of the constitutional separation of church and state and second because of the terms of their charity status under the federal tax code.
Several preachers, however, were said to have violated that rule in the run-up to last November, and the Internal Revenue Service is thought to have begun dozens of investigations to substantiate those reports.
The endorsements from the pulpit were made on behalf of both major candidates, but there is no doubt Mr Bush was the greater beneficiary of church activism. Churches have become more conservative over the past few years, and many preachers spent considerable energy last autumn dwelling on the issues of abortion and gay marriage - both of which played into the Republican camp.
In most cases, the pro-Republican line was not made explicit but came across loud and clear. Flyers asked congregants to consider, as part of their voting deliberations, which candidate had voted in favour of abortion rights and which candidate was in favour of a "gay agenda". "It was so obviously weighted against Kerry and for Bush," said Don Fado, a retired Methodist minister from Sacramento, California, who said his own church had been riven by a burst of organising zeal by political conservatives.
The Chan Chandler affair appears to be a case of over-reaching rather than anything grossly atypical. In the taped sermon, Mr Chandler said he felt it his religious duty to call the presidential race openly, even though he knew it was against the rules.
"We've been catering to Satan, catering to the enemy, we've not been making the stand that God wants us to make," he said. "Let me just say this right now. If you vote for John Kerry this year, you need to repent or resign."
Anticipating the outrage of Democrats in his church, he added: "If you're going to be offended today, take it up with the most high. I am merely the spokesperson. Don't kill the messenger."
Mr Fado and others said that, in many other churches, Democrats are made to feel unwelcome even without such rhetoric. At a Presbyterian church in the Sacramento suburb of Fair Oaks, a new pastor recently overturned what one local resident described as a "an ordinary Presbyterian peace, love and happiness sort of place" and instituted a much more conservative and political line.
Many congregants were appalled and moved away. "It's not up to us to decide who's in and who's out politically," Mr Fado said. "As soon as you say that, you're not a true Christian. That's self-righteousness."Reuse content