Thursday, January 05, 2006

Playin' Us For Suckers

They're at it again:

The Rev. Herbert H. Lusk II is a maverick black minister who took to his pulpit in Philadelphia in 2000 and pledged his support for a Bush presidency, a speech broadcast live at the Republican National Convention. Two years later, Mr. Lusk was criticized when he received a $1 million grant through the president's new religion-based initiative to run a housing program for the poor.

This Sunday, Mr. Lusk has offered his church in Philadelphia as the site for a major political rally intended to whip up support for the president's Supreme Court nominee, Judge
Samuel A. Alito Jr., whose confirmation hearings begin on Monday.

The event, dubbed "Justice Sunday III," will be broadcast by satellite nationwide to churches and Christian radio and television stations, and organizers say it will reach 80 million households.

The speaking lineup includes the Rev. Jerry Falwell of Liberty University; James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family, a multimedia ministry in Colorado Springs; and Senator Rick Santorum, Republican of Pennsylvania.

Mr. Lusk said he agreed to be the host of the event at his Greater Exodus Baptist Church more out of loyalty to Mr. Bush - "a friend of mine" - than out of support for Judge Alito.

"I don't know enough about him to say I actually think he's the right man to do the job," Mr. Lusk said in a telephone interview on Wednesday about Judge Alito. "I'm saying I trust a friend of mine who promised me that he would appoint people to the justice system that would be attentive to the needs I care about" - stopping same-sex marriage, assisted suicide and abortions for minors, and supporting prayer and Christmas celebrations in schools.

Other black pastors criticized Mr. Lusk for providing a black church as a stage for a pro-Alito event when they say Judge Alito has a poor record on civil rights. The Rev. Robert P. Shine Sr., president of the Pennsylvania State Wide Coalition of Black Clergy, said, "The rights gained by blacks and other minorities are subject to reversal in the event that Alito, along with Roberts, sits on the court."

Mr. Lusk says he is accustomed to controversy. After his speech to the Republican National Convention, he was reported to the Internal Revenue Service by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a watchdog group based in Washington, which accused him of violating tax rules that prohibit churches from endorsing political candidates.

"In one person, Herbert Lusk represents what is wrong with mixing religion and government," said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United.

Mr. Lusk said the I.R.S. dropped the investigation because he never literally "endorsed" Mr. Bush, only the faith-based initiative. An I.R.S. spokesperson said the agency routinely refused to discuss investigations of taxpayers, or even to confirm whether an investigation took place.
Mr. Bush has visited Mr. Lusk's church twice to highlight its social service programs, once in 2001 and again in 2004.

Mr. Lusk's network of poverty programs has received several federal grants through the faith-based initiative, according to the White House press office: $999,952 for the housing program in 2002; $310,842 for a community technology center in 2003, and the same amount again in 2004; and $126,000 for a program to mentor the children of prisoners in 2004.

Jim Towey, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, said in an e-mail response that Mr. Lusk's church had won the grants not because of favoritism, but through a competitive bidding process administered by federal agencies.

"There shouldn't be a double standard here where a handful of grants to those organizations that work with President Bush to house the homeless and treat the addicted are subject to close scrutiny, while the great multitude of grants go to organizations who have been affiliated with the Democratic Party for years," Mr. Towey said.

Mr. Lusk said he would await the confirmation process to determine whether his support for Judge Alito was justified. "I may be wrong on Alito, I don't know that, but I know I'm right on George W.," he said. "He's always done what he's told me he would do."

With the Abramoff-DeLay-Duke Cunningham scandals rocking the Republican Party, the Katrina-Sago disasters highlighting the Republican Administration's stewardship of state, or lack thereof, and the absence of a barn-burner issue like Terry Schiavo, it isn't surprising that this third installment of the Justice Sunday series hasn't attracted as much attention as the previous two.

But the fact that upwards of 80 million "households" may view this latest diatribe against the separation of church and state, liberty of conscience, and the Democratic Party, suggests it should be treated seriously.

For the sake of brevity I'm going to skip over the smelly financial implications here of a minister reaping millions from a president's "faith based initiative programs" and get to the ideological substance, which I've highlighted above.

For the good pastor just spouted the Christian Right's favorite talking points on gays, God, and abortion, all designed to dupe Christian congregants into thinking that the corporate Republican Party has its interests at heart, and if only given a free pass by Congress and the Media (which it pretty much has been), would surely usher in a new era of Christian utopia, happy families, obedient wives, and compliant workers.

But as Thomas Franks so eloquently put it in What's The Matter With Kansas?, the Right's Culture War has been a "complete bust". And for the sake of freedom, it's a good thing, too. The Christian Right cares not one wit for the values of privacy and individual rights. Meanwhile, tools like Lusk want to manipulate Christian adherents into ignoring the blatant abuse of power inherent in conservative political ideology that results in the deaths of thousands from Katrina, and the smaller scale, but more highly focused, mine tragedy this week in West Virginia. They want Christians to think that "there's nothing to see here, please move along". "Don't hold the administration or the governing party responsible."

I hope the predicted "80 million" viewing households will prove to be grossly distorted. But in case it's not, progressives shouldn't take the 2006 elections for granted, assuming the administration's disasters and scandals will cost them. The Christian elite is endeavoring to ensure that they don't. And that would be the truest injustice.

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