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Friday, November 03, 2006

In Wisconsin, the Evangelical Right isn't the Problem...

Luckily for us, the evangelical right doesn't really have much of a toe hold in Wisconsin. We've got a few nuts -- Ralph Ovadal comes to mind. But he's such a minor player in the religious right movement that he barely even counts. He has pretty much zero influence in a state with a Republican legislature. He's just so bad at PR that he makes more enemies than friends.

So it's always sort of a shock when religious politicking shows its head in any organized way here. This year saw the founding of a group to push an amendment to the state constitution banning anything at all similar to a civil partnership -- gay or otherwise. But the Coalition for America's Families is pretty much an astroturf organization -- it doesn't represent a groundswell of support for evangelical values in Wisconsin. Blatant politicking in the name of God is rare here, because it doesn't really work all that well. Most churches have learned that the best way to turn off wisconsinites is to try to strongarm them.

Not so the Catholic Church. Like most of flyover country, Wisconsin is largely protestant. But the church is large enough that if it were able to influence the vote, it could throw an election their way.

Enter Bishop Robert Morlino of the Madison diocese. Morlino is a hardliner -- authoritarian and right wing -- making him a very poor fit for his openminded and thoughtful community.

Morlino's been extremely active in this election cycle. And often at odds with his own flock. He stands against embryonic stem cell research and for the 'gay marriage' ban, all the while completely ignoring campaign laws.

The Capital Times:

The Madison bishop's insistence that pastors in the diocese's 134 parishes play a recorded homily this weekend in which he dismisses arguments against a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and civil unions as "baloney" has Catholics speaking out against what some are calling a right-wing rule.

"I think it's really discouraging for people who are progressive in their thinking and want work for social justice to hear this kind of preaching where their core is," said John Matthews, a lifelong Catholic and executive director of Madison's largest teachers union.

Morlino, 59, has defended his preaching as in keeping with the long-held pro-life, pro-marriage, pro-family position of the Catholic Church. This weekend's recorded homily also takes stands against a pro-capital punishment referendum and embryonic stem cell research. Beyond that, the bishop wrote in a letter to Wisconsin citizens this week, his positions are matters not of Catholic faith, but "universal truths, based on reason alone."

Morlino's defenders say he is obliged to speak out in defense of the church's teachings, but some discontented Catholics say his recent hard-line pronouncements on political issues are just the latest example of the bishop - who in 2004 castigated Madisonians as being "immoral" - not being attuned to his constituents.

In a letter dated Oct. 25th, Morlino wrote priests in the diocese:

...My office has received reports that in isolated cases, priests have refused to cooperate with my clear wishes in this matter. Please listen to the enclosed message; it deal with the marriage referendum, the death penalty referendum, and the issue of embryonic-stem cell research. The message is educational in its purpose, and is certainly non-partisan. What I expect of each of you is a simple introductory statement that the bishop has required this message to be played during the homily time at all Masses of obligation on November 4th or 5th. If you can express some support for the message that I offer that would be appreciated but not expected. I must make it very clear that any verbal or non-verbal expression of disagreement on the part of the priest will have to be considered by myself as an act of disobedience, which could have serious consequences...

The guy's a prick, basically. And by requiring that the recorded campaign ad be played during Mass, he's also in violation of election laws. Morlino disputes this, but his defense is laughable. In defending fliers sent to parishioners -- which out and out told them to vote and campaign for the marriage ban -- Morlino got all spinny:


"I don't see that we've violated any law whatsoever." Bishop Morlino admits the fliers have 'political implications,' but he doesn't think the section telling parishioners to talk to friends and neighbors and write editorials to be electioneering. "We are asking people to do this, recommending people do it. If I had some way of forcing people to do it that would be electioneering."

It's only electioneering if you can force someone to do it? Put aside the fact that he is forcing priests to campaign for a moment and consider this question; if that's the definition of electioneering, who's capable of it? Certainly not political parties, who have no control whatsoever over what voters do. Using the Bishop's definition, not even candidates for office can be said to engage in electioneering.

According to WMTV-News:

"The diocese is free to campaign for the amendment, that's not the problem," argues Mike McCabe of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

McCabe says the problem is that the fliers tell parishioners to vote yes. The church is allowed to produce the fliers, but if they do they need to register with the state elections board and disclose how much money was spent. "If they spend money to directly tell people to vote yes then they need to publicly disclose those activities."

We tend to think of the religious right as slick protestant hucksters with permanent smiles on their faces and a bad case of helmet hair. But the evangelicals aren't all there are to the religious right. Where Ralph Ovadal is a ridiculous boob, people like Robert Morlino are a serious problem for the First Amendment, fairness, and democracy.


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