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Limits of pulpit politics tested in N.C.

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The case reverberated far outside the wooden doors of the East Waynesville church, rankling even staunch Southern Baptists. Traditionalists in the Southern Baptist Convention point out that Baptists, as far back as the Constitutional Convention, lobbied hard for the separation of church and state.

"What Republicans are learning is that nobody is a total lock," says Paul Froese, a sociology of religion professor at Baylor University. "It's not like they've just captured conservative Christians and are walking away with them. If they start to look too self-righteous, that can turn off a lot of Christians in the long run."

Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention with close ties to the White House, said this week that churches should not endorse candidates from the pew.

Conservatism rising

"For somebody to say they're going to 'disfellowship' someone because they disagree on doctrine is extreme and not fundamental to Christian faith," says Mr. Staver of the Liberty Counsel. "But there is a rise in conservatism and a rise in the ability and desire of pastors to speak out on social issues, which I think is very healthy and good."

While many liberals see what happened here as a sign of overreach against secularism, many evangelical Christians say that free speech for the clergy is not only permissible but is crucial to the sanctity of broader societal debates. Some advocates have been pushing to make it easier for pastors to talk politics from the pulpits, without inviting a letter from the IRS. The Internal Revenue Service has since 1954 deemed it illegal to use church funds for political campaigning, but has given relatively wide latitude to preachers.

While the discussion of worldly policies in churches may be growing, it is hardly new. From the abolition movement to ongoing debates over abortion and the teaching of evolution, such talk has ebbed and flowed throughout US history - a tradition that fueled the Civil Rights movement.

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