Sunday, June 13, 2004

President Bush and the Republican Party in his home state of Texas are being criticized by Democrats on the touchy issue of whether America is a Christian nation.

At its convention in Austin, the Texas Republican Party voted to reaffirm a plank in its platform that disputes “the myth of the separation of church and state.” The plank celebrates the United States as “a Christian nation.”

An official of an organization affiliated with the Democratic National Committee castigated the action.

“This is part and parcel of who the GOP and their conservative base are,” said David Harris, spokesman for the National Jewish Democratic Committee. “While this is nothing new, it certainly raises to new excesses the lengths this Republican Party is going to in order to tear down the wall separating church and state.

“It is a wall deeply cherished by American Jews — and many other Americans for that matter,” Mr. Harris added.

A prominent Democrat called on Mr. Bush to repudiate the Texas party’s action.

“The Texas party has been off the charts for a long time,” said James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute. “Frankly, I would hope President Bush would repudiate that. We are calling on him to do so.”

Mr. Zogby said the Texas conservative platform “goes against what Bush has said and flies in face of what he has stood for, but it reflects more a policy of [U.S. Rep.] Tom DeLay and some of those hard-liners on the Christian right.”

The Texas Republican Party plank says, “Christian Nation — The Republican Party of Texas affirms that the United States of America is a Christian nation, and the public acknowledgment of God is undeniable in our history.

“Our nation was founded on fundamental Judeo-Christian principles based on the Holy Bible. The party affirms freedom of religion, and rejects efforts of courts and secular activists who seek to remove and deny such a rich heritage from our public lives,” it states.

The response from the national Republican Party yesterday was far different from the one it gave in 1992, when it pressured then-Mississippi Gov. Kirk Fordice to recant his “Christian nation” statement. Health and Human Service Secretary Tommy G. Thompson, then the governor of Wisconsin, was one of the few nationally known Republicans at the time to defend Mr. Fordice’s right to say what he said.

Yesterday, the Republican National Committee refused to criticize, let alone undo, what the Texas party had done at its June 4 convention.

RNC Communications Director Jim Dyke said the national party “doesn’t control the state parties’ platforms. Each state party determines what their state platform will say.”

But Mr. Dyke deemed it “important to point out we are a country and party of religious freedom and to some people that means a Christian nation, to some a Jewish nation, to others a Muslim nation and to still others — who don’t practice religion at all — an agnostic nation. The fact is that all of these things together are what make us a great nation.”

Mr. Dyke noted: “We are, though, a country founded on Judeo-Christian values and that’s why you see ‘In God we trust’ on our currency and why we sing, ‘God bless America.’”

Christian conservatives long have been influential, both in positions and numbers, within the Texas Republican Party.

“The Republican GOP of Texas is driven by the grass roots from the bottom up, not the top down,” party member Tim Lambert said. “What’s in our platform is the position of the state party and the delegates of that convention but, I believe, the vast majority of Texans and probably most Americans.”

Party Chairwoman Tina J. Benkiser also stood by her state party’s plan.

“Our platform is an acknowledgment that most of our nation’s Founding Fathers had a deep faith in God. We believe that people of faith should be welcomed in the political process today as they were 200 years ago,” Mrs. Benkiser said.

She said the state party’s platform is virtually identical to the one it has had for the past decade.

During that time, she noted, Republicans “have gained over 900 offices in Texas, including all 29 statewide offices, a record number of congressional and state senate seats, and the first state house majority in 130 years. Clearly, the people of Texas recognize that the Republican Party is the mainstream party that best represents their beliefs and values.”

Christians make up 82 percent of the U.S. population, Jews 1 percent and Muslims less than 1 percent, with atheists, agnostic and those citing no preference making up 13 percent, according to a Pew Research Council survey of 2,002 adults conducted in 2002.

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