Republican efforts to obtain church rosters from Southern Baptists and Roman Catholics who support President Bush (search) have alienated some of the very people the GOP campaign is trying to court, as religious leaders worry the outreach could violate limits on politics in church.
This week, the Republican National Committee (search) confirmed it had asked Catholics who back Bush to give parish directories to the RNC as a way to identify and mobilize new voters. The Bush campaign has asked the same of congregants in other denominations.
Republican spokesmblic documents available to anyone, and making the request violates no law.
The information will be used for nonpartisan voter-registration drives, they said, stressing that they are not asking clergy for the directories — which could risk a church's tax-exempt status — but instead are asking individual congregants to volunteer their copies.
"We feel strongly that our grass-roots efforts are totally within the law and it's totally appropriate to encourage people of faith to participate," Terry Holt, spokesman for the Bush-Cheney campaign, said Friday.
While Catholic officials concede the tactic may be legal, they say it is improper — and interferes with the work of the church. The directories are meant to help priests organize their parishes and build support among members, and are not for use by any outside group, they say.
Some parishes distribute directories with pictures of families who belong to the church, but those are put together for the families' use only, officials say.
"It is the 11th commandment in this archdiocese that parish lists will not be given out for any reason whatsoever," said Tod Tamberg, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. "And I can't imagine that the very same pastors who rely on the sacrosanct nature of those lists would ever allow them to be used for this purpose."
Richard Land, head of the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention (search), has said he is "appalled" by the strategy, which he said "intrudes into the sanctity of the church."
"It's an inappropriate violation of the trust of fellow church members," Land said Friday.
"If I were pastor of a church, I would go onto the pulpit and I would say, `To share the church directory with anyone outside the church body is a violation of the sanctity of the body ... and I'm asking as a pastor that no one do it."'
Land is an outspoken Bush supporter, as are many leaders of the 16 million-member evangelical denomination. Bush has acknowledged their importance by addressing the Southern Baptists' annual meeting for three consecutive years.
John Green, an expert on religion and politics at the University of Akron, said denominational leaders are partly upset because local clergy may not be familiar with the rules, increasing the chances they'll cross a legal line.
Last month, the Bush campaign e-mailed Pennsylvania churchgoers to target 1,600 "Friendly Congregations" where people can register to vote and pick up political information as the election nears. But the campaign said the missive was intended only to be passed from "individual to individual" — and not from preacher to congregation.
"On the face of it, these are not necessarily bad things," Green said, of the requests for church directories. "But they can be done in a way to create enormous trouble."
Republican strategists may be willing to take that risk because of the potential benefits of targeting regular churchgoers.
Green's research has found that white Christians who attend worship services at least once a week are far more likely to vote Republican, while less frequent worshippers and those who are not religious, tend to lean Democratic.
Catholics, once staunchly Democratic, now no longer vote as a bloc. They are the largest denomination in the country, with about 64 million members, and comprise more than one-quarter of the electorate.
The Rev. Barry Lynn, head of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said it was "ludicrous" for Republicans to claim they were using the church directories for nonpartisan purposes. "This is part of a relentless campaign to ensnare churches into illegal partisan politicking," he said.