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  • When Church Becomes State: Electioneering and the Culture of Fear and Race in the 2008 Presidential Election
  • Kimberly Flint-Hamilton

The 2008 political campaign season brought out the best and the worst in the American voting public. Rising unemployment, the recession, and collapse of several major financial institutions forced many Americans to take stock of what was really important in their political lives, to become more active and vote for a cure. For others, however, looming economic uncertainty and the realization that change was on the horizon brought out fear, and drove them back into a pattern of traditional, elitist behaviors—behaviors shaped by attitudes originating in the pre-Civil Rights era, behaviors that would have translated into status, privilege, and perhaps even wealth a generation or two ago. Us vs. them. The insiders vs. the outsiders. Whites vs. blacks. Friend vs. enemy. These attitudes filtered down to the neighborhood and parish level, and were manifested in mini-dramas that made some feel unwelcome in their places of worship, contributing to a phenomenon reported by The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life—namely, a loss of membership in churches. According to the study, the Catholic Church has suffered the greatest net loss in membership in recent years.1

Maintaining a healthy separation of American religious life from the political is an essential ideal. Without it, our basic freedoms are threatened. The church, e.g., may grow in power and begin to control the state. This happens in a theocracy. The Taliban of Afghanistan is a perfect example. Under Taliban rule, citizens were at the mercy of leaders’ interpretation of religious dogma, e.g., women had been banished from the workplace, girls were forbidden to attend school, and women could not seek medical care from a male physician, while at the same time women were forbidden from becoming physicians. The consequences for violating these restrictions are severe, ranging from public flogging to death by stoning. Christianity has been [End Page 41] just as extreme, however. Between the Crusades, witch burnings, and destruction of pagan temples, wars fought in the name of Christianity have resulted in the deaths of millions.2

Blurring the distinction between church and state can also lead to state-run churches, such as the Anglican Church of England or the Emperor cult in Rome which authorized throwing Christians to the lions. Just as with a theocracy, the freedoms of the populace are restricted and subject to the interpretation of political leaders. Citizens are forced to live, not according to a moral code informed by their own religious traditions, but according to their leaders’ interpretation of the state’s policies. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor pointed out the following in response to the ruling on the public display of the Ten Commandments (June 27, 2005): “Those who would renegotiate the boundaries between church and state must therefore answer a difficult question: why would we trade a system that has served us so well for one that has served others so poorly?”

In this paper, I explore the transformation of churches, particularly Catholic churches, from moral institutions instructing its members on the proper way to live, into political entities during the 2008 presidential campaign. I examine the role that fear and race played by applying a cultural materialist analysis of race and racism in the face of economic disaster. Finally I reflect on the changes in light of the political philosophy of Nazi philosopher Carl Schmitt.

One of the ways that separation of church and state has been maintained is through bans on electioneering. Religious, charitable, and educational organizations can receive tax exemptions provided that they do not intervene in political campaigns by lobbying or endorsing candidates or political positions. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has provided exemptions for various non-profit religious and educational organizations since 1917. Called “Tax Exemption 501(c)(3),” this provision allows individuals and organizations to make donations to churches and other charitable entities and to deduct those contributions from their income and property taxes. The tax exemptions also allow for “special access to tax-exempt bonds and benefits such as preferred postal rates.3 Tax-exempt organizations, however, must be organized and...


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