NEW YORK A video screen showed President Bush boarding a plane for Washington. His purpose: to get to the White House and sign Congress' bill asking federal courts to review the removal of Terri Schiavo's feeding tube.
Joan Bokaer of TheocracyWatch.org offered her take on the action. "There's something strange about the folks running our country," she quipped. The audience of 500 people responded with some appreciative chuckles.
Bokaer, from a social action center affiliated with Cornell University, was speaking at a conference last weekend that denounced conservative Republicans on matters like mercy killing, abortion, gay marriage, research using human embryos, broadcast indecency, Israel, Iraq, faith-based charity funding, judicial nominations and church-state relations. The book table sold assorted Bush-bashing titles.
But the gathering wasn't a Democratic Party caucus.
It was an academic conference at the City University of New York on "the real agenda of the religious far right" and it offered a fresh example of just how venomous America's conservative-liberal religious split has become and how entangled faith is with politics.
The meeting came as debate about religion's role in politics and government has reached incendiary heights with the Schiavo case, followed by the dispute over Republican judicial nominees and Democratic Senate filibusters.
At the CUNY conference, the central threat speakers raised was "theocracy" a label often heard from politicians and liberal pundits in recent days that conservatives consider extremely insulting. The word's dictionary meaning is a regime where clergy monopolize power and impose divine dictates.
Though one speaker lamented Roman Catholicism's new "fundamentalist pope," the weekend's chief targets were evangelical Protestants whose tactics were compared with those of Machiavelli, Hitler, Stalin and Jim Jones of mass-suicide fame.
One speaker described even the Rev. Billy Graham as a theocratic fellow traveler because he wants more Christians involved in public life.
While conservatives would certainly take offense to some of the comments, evangelicals have shown in recent weeks that they also have a touch for remarks guaranteed to irritate or frighten fellow Americans.
Talking about candidates for federal judgeships, Southern Baptist seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr. said, "We are not asking for persons merely to be moral. We want them to be believers in the Lord Jesus Christ."
And on ABC's "This Week," Pat Robertson reaffirmed his beliefs that liberal judges are more dangerous to America than anything for centuries, al-Qaida included, that he's dubious about Muslims as judges and that if he were president he'd allow only Christians and Jews in his Cabinet.
The speakers at CUNY offered fierce language, too. Historian Hugh Urban of Ohio State University charged Christian hard-liners with exploiting the "otherwise vacuous figure of George W. Bush" as they plot against democracy.
Charles Strozier, director of a CUNY terrorism center, said the religious right, "emboldened in ways never seen before in American history," is promoting the "basically neo-Fascist schemes of the new Republicans."
No speaker representing religious conservatives was invited to offer a rebuttal. Nor did conferees clarify what religious lobbying is proper or improper.
The Rev. Bob Edgar, a former Democratic congressman and general secretary of the National Council of Churches, strongly favors religious politicking but said in an interview that he draws the line when groups say "we are right and everyone else is evil" or claim that "another point of view is illegitimate."
Edgar accuses the religious right of such attitudes. "This may be the darkest time in our history," he told the CUNY conference. "Our very liberties are at stake."
His church council supported the CUNY meeting along with Americans United for Separation of Church and State, People For the American Way and others. The New York Open Center and CUNY were the co-sponsors.
Responding to the meeting, conservatives said their political activism merely expresses their rights as citizens to advocate, vote and participate in government the same rights liberals and secularists exercise.
Theocracy labeling is "a very subtle attempt to smear evangelical Christians with what we see happening in the Mideast," said Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council.
Tom Minnery, public policy vice president with Focus on the Family, called the charge "ludicrous." He said the conference indicates the left "is vaporizing in a hysteria of ignorance and vindictiveness. We've never seen anything like it."Comment on this story
Mostly, CUNY conferees backed the theocracy charge by associating the religious right with an extremist movement known as "reconstructionism," "theonomy" or "dominionism." Proponents such as Rousas J. Rushdoony of California's Chalcedon Foundation, who died in 2001, advocated imposition of Old Testament laws.
Evangelical activists deny that this small group influences their thinking.
One nonpartisan expert who wasn't present at CUNY, Rice University sociologist William Martin, agrees that reconstructionists are a tiny fringe, though he does worry that some activists are being tempted toward theocratic thinking.
"Of course religious people have a right to be involved in politics, and we can't expect them to leave their values behind," he said. "The proper response from those who disagree is not to proclaim them as un-American but to try to oppose them in the political arena."