Fla. Senate race rekindles debate on religion, politics

The Baltimore Sun

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- U.S. Senate candidate Katherine Harris brought a combustible mix of religion and politics to South Florida last week, reaching out to Jewish and Christian groups while preaching the cause of civic action imbued with Judeo-Christian values.

To Jewish leaders and voters in Palm Beach County, Harris emphasized her support for Israel and her belief that Jews are "the chosen people." At a gathering in Fort Lauderdale of the Christian Family Coalition, a statewide faith-based group, she focused on her religious calling and how she overcame a loathing of politics to advance a conservative agenda.

"I had always thought 'poli' means 'many,' and 'tics' means 'blood sucking insects,'" she said. "So I barely understood why the separation of church and state is so bad.

"My challenge to the churches is true engagement, or to any people of faith, because we are called."

The Florida Senate race, which has drawn national attention mostly because of Harris' prominent role in the 2000 presidential election, has renewed a deep-rooted debate about the relevance of religion and morality in politics, an issue clouded by the sex scandal surrounding former Florida Rep. Mark Foley.

Harris' mission seems designed to stoke support among conservative Christians while defusing anger in South Florida's vast Jewish community about her recent remarks to a Baptist publication questioning the separation of church and state.

To all audiences, she tried to depict her opponent, Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, as a liberal Washington elitist who has voted against traditional family values by supporting abortion rights and opposing a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.

Nelson brought his own version of faith-based campaigning to Miami on Friday, where he met with black ministers and toured a Goodwill Industries plant that trains and employs hundreds of disabled workers while instilling nondenominational values built around a work ethic.

"Clearly, faith is one of the anchors of my life," Nelson said afterward. "But it's not something I wear on my sleeve."

Nelson said religious values inevitably influence the legislative process. "Where I think it crosses the line is when people try to mandate government acts according to their beliefs. If one group says, 'My way is the only right-thinking way, and you do as I say,' it not only undermines the Constitution, it discriminates against other people of different beliefs or different ways of expressing them."

Regardless of the outcome of this race, Harris' incursion into the realm of religion has roused strong feelings from voters divided over the faith-based approach to government taken by President Bush, many conservative Christians and Democratic Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut.

"Fact: There is no mention of separation of church and state in the Constitution. It only says the state shall establish no religion," said Jack McAleer, 67, a retired firefighter who came to hear Harris speak to the Republican Club of Century Village in West Palm Beach. "The whole thing has been bastardized by the U.S. Supreme Court. They paint any religious person as some kind of devil. If you are religious, they think something is wrong with you."

Sitting quietly in the back of the room, Nancy Giarrusso, 79, who plans to vote for Harris out of party loyalty, said, "I do not believe in the church getting involved in government money. Bad policy."

While meeting with the Century Village Republicans and later with the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County, Harris tried to allay concerns about her remarks in August to a publication called the Florida Baptist Witness.

Harris was quoted as saying that separation of church and state is "a lie we have been told" to keep religious people out of politics. "If you are not electing Christians, tried and true, under public scrutiny and pressure, if you're not electing Christians, then in essence you are going to legislate sin," she said.

In a later interview published by a Christian news service, Harris said Nelson "claims to be a Christian" but supports policies "completely contrary to what we say we believe."

"This was just a call to action," she said last week.

Harris later told a gathering of Palm Beach County Republican leaders that she had no intention of excluding followers of any faith, adding that she believes that "Jewish people are the chosen ones."

The party faithful rewarded her with a standing ovation. Others were not swayed.

"You can't make up for being against core Jewish issues just by saying Israel is wonderful and Jews are the chosen people," said William Gralnick of Boca Raton, regional director of the American Jewish Committee.

William E. Gibson writes for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

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