Lutheran Church Not Informed of Gun Control March Politics

Scott Hogenson | July 7, 2008 | 8:26pm EDT
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( - The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is distancing itself from the so-called 'Million Mom March' because of the gun control group's stated intention of supporting political candidates.

The ELCA had urged its more than five million members to work "in support of gun control legislation," and to support the May 14 gun control march on Washington, DC.

But a spokeswoman for the church's government affairs office in Washington said now that the MMM organization is becoming a political entity supporting and opposing candidates for office based on their gun control positions, the ELCA will likely stop encouraging Lutherans to participate in MMM activities.

Church officials also said they were not aware that MMM organizers planned to become politically active regarding candidates for office, and would have preferred knowing the organization's plans before the event.

MMM organizer Donna Dees-Thomases said Monday that the group was likely to support Vice President Al Gore in his bid for the White House, saying that if Gore were to "give us clear (gun control) policy - not compromise policy, but clear policy - I think you can count on our support."

"We can't participate in that at all," said Kay Bengston, the assistant director for domestic policy for the Lutheran Office of Governmental Affairs, which represents the ELCA in legislative matters. "We will not be actively involved in an organization that's involved with any particular candidate activity."

The ELCA endorsed the MMM and encouraged church members to attend the Mothers Day event on the National Mall in Washington. But two days before the demonstration, Dees-Thomases said "on May 15th, the oven mitts come off and we're going to take a hard look at the (presidential) candidates."

Bengston said the church was not aware of the change in stance by MMM organizers. "They should have let us know. I had no idea at that particular point," said Bengston, who said that Dees-Thomases' announcement of political activity also goes against the grain of church policy. "We would have a problem with taking a stand for or against any particular candidate," said Bengston.

The timing of the MMM announcement of becoming politically active was also an issue for the ELCA. "I think what they should have done was to not have done that until after the event," said Bengston. "We endorsed the MMM based on their principles and their positions on gun restrictions," not on its political activity.

As of mid-day Tuesday however, the ELCA was still promoting the MMM on its main Internet web site and on the government affairs web page as well.

Other high-ranking ELCA officials were also unaware of the MMM's shift toward supporting political candidates. "It probably would have been more honest for them to say that at the beginning," said Rev. Les Weber, the ELCA's associate executive director of the Division for Church in Society, which is the policy branch of the national church. "I did not know that this was going to result in an ongoing organization."

Weber made it clear that the ELCA was not considering a continuing relationship with the MMM. "We're not (the group's) allies in the sense of ongoing strategies in the future," said Weber. "It's not like we're buddy-buddy," with the gun control group.

According to Weber, the ELCA will continue pursuing the church's agenda of raising consciousness on gun issues, saying "in and of itself, there's nothing wrong with that." But like Bengston, Weber also said the MMM's political activity would be too much for the church.

The tax status of the church is a primary consideration in the matter. Like almost all churches, the ELCA is a not-for-profit organization that may use a portion of its resources to support specific legislation, but is forbidden from supporting or opposing political candidates. Weber said problems arise "when you then begin to say 'we support x candidate or we oppose x candidate.'"

One aspect of the ELCA's endorsement of the MMM involved the distribution of promotional fliers to Lutheran parishioners in "a couple hundred churches" in the Washington, DC area before the march, Bengston said.

The fliers encouraged churchgoers to register for the MMM, listed the group's Internet web address and telephone number, and included the group's logo and artwork.

But the MMM's announcement to become politically active caught at least one local church pastor off guard to the extent that he said he would not have promoted the event had he known of the group's plans.

"I think if I'd had known that, I'd have pulled it," said Pastor Frederick Donahoe of St. Peter's Lutheran Church in Stafford, Virginia, about 35 miles south of the nation's capital. Danahoe authorized the distribution of the MMM flier to parishioners during the May 14 church services.

Donahoe said he was uncomfortable with the political aspects of the MMM and wanted no part of the group's plan to work on behalf of candidates who embrace the gun control agenda. "If they just made the statement on Friday that they're becoming more political, it sounds like Pat Robertson to me," said Donahoe. "I don't think it's appropriate for local churches to tell people how to vote."

Although he wouldn't say whether he thought the MMM misrepresented its political intentions to the church, Donahoe said he would have appreciated more complete information on the group.

"That's pretty true. I think some gun legislation is necessary and there was a certain sense that this Million Mom March was like MADD - Mothers Against Drunk Driving," said Donahoe.

Calls to the MMM headquarters for comment were not returned.
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