Who speaks for God, deep in the heart of politics?

Texas Tales: Elaine Davenport charts her state's progress during the run-up to the US elections
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The Independent Online
Austin - Here in the Bible Belt it's hard sometimes to tell who is speaking for God.

Take, for example, last Sunday's service at Great Hills Baptist Church, which seats 3,600. This is a large church, even by Texas standards, although bigger ones exist in Houston and Dallas. The 150-member choir and 30-piece brass and string band rocked and rolled through several hymns. In an illuminated pool, below a huge white cross, four members of the congregation were baptised by immersion, and the audience applauded each dunk. The lion-maned pastor, Harold O'Chester, stepped in and out from behind his Plexiglass pulpit, shouting and whispering into his microphone, punching the air or raising a well-shod foot from the floor for emphasis. Four video cameras whirred away.

Before the sermon, the pastor introduced a visitor. "It's election time," he began, picking his words carefully. "Our church cannot endorse a candidate for office, but I'd like to introduce one." Teresa Doggett, Republican candidate for Congress, and her husband, stood and were applauded.

The Rev O'Chester was careful to avoid partisan politicking because his church, for tax purposes, is non-profit. As such, it can legally educate voters, but cannot co-ordinate that activity with the campaigns of specific candidates. This is a touchy point because Great Hills Church in the past has distributed voter guides prepared by the Christian Coalition, a national group of religious conservatives founded by the evangelist Pat Robertson. On 30 July, the bipartisan Federal Election Commission sued the Christian Coalition for violating federal election rules, accusing it of illegally using voter guides, mailings and telephone banks to back Republican candidates in 1990, 1992 and 1994.

This year, Jeff Fisher, executive director of the Texas Christian Coalition, says his group will go ahead with the planned distribution through 3,500 churches of four million voter guides for the 5 November general election, despite the federal lawsuit.

Perhaps it is Mr Fisher who is speaking for God, or perhaps it is the 300 moderate Protestant, Jewish and Catholic clergy and citizens who met in Austin last weekend to counter the conservative tide. They called on religious leaders throughout the state to block the Christian Coalition from using their churches for partisan politics.

The moderate clergy say they have spent too much of the 1990s sitting on their hands while their conservative counterparts organised a formidable grass-roots political movement. They do not want to silence the Christian Coalition, they say, but to imitate its organisational prowess to spread their own message that religious ethics and compassion should influence, but not control, political issues. "I am a Christian and the Christian Coalition does not represent me or my congregation or the God we worship," said Bobbi Kaye Jones, associate pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Austin.

These politically minded religious groups are making Texas a prime battleground in the heated debate over public education. Nationally, there is discussion of eliminating the Department of Education, in order to put all decisions about schools squarely in local hands. In Texas, the 15 members of the State Board of Education - which approves textbooks and works with the legislature to set school policy - face a tumultuous few years of high-visibility, partisan politics. Eight of the 15 unpaid places on the Board are up for grabs on 5 November.

The issues they will confront include school prayer; whether to use public tax dollars to pay for private academies and religious schools through vouchers; sex education; bilingual education; parental rights; multicultural education; and, evolution versus creationism as science - all meaty matters which would tax the wisdom of Solomon.

In 1993-94, there were attempts in 16 Texas school districts to censor books, according to People for the American Way, a national group which collects information on censorship and on leaders and groups who represent the religious right. A well-known case of so-called "stealth" candidates taking over a local school board occurred in Round Rock, 15 miles north of Austin. Stealth candidates are so named because they do not reveal their political affiliation until after an election.

Conservatives gained control of the Round Rock school board in 1993 and fired the superintendent during their attempt to censor books and change long-standing policies. By 1995, the board was back in the hands of moderates such as Cindy Rose, who had become an activist. "We woke up and realised we had been blindsided," she said. "All they needed to take over ... were the votes from two local conservative churches."

Whoever is speaking for God these days, religion and politics in Texas seem to be bedding down together in a way that has the old theory of separation of church and state looking for new guidelines.