The Inquisition 

So, Mr. Candidate, do you go to church?

So, Mr. Candidate, do you go to church?

Imagine running for a seat in the state legislature and getting a six-page, 70-question survey in the mail asking about your churchgoing habits, your complete employment history, financial details about your family, and—by the way—what you think about homosexuality and abortion?

Nashvillians for a Brighter Future, the social conservative political activist group that pretends not to be a political activist group, is trying to do this year for the Tennessee legislature what it claims it did for the Metro Council last year—that is, help elect gay-hating God lovers. Now called "CommonGoode.org," the group has sent out surveys to legislative candidates asking a range of questions whose intrusiveness are worthy of an FBI background investigation. The answers are to be posted on the group's Web site for the world to see.

There are questions about church attendance: "Question 21: Are you a member of a church, synagogue, mosque or other religious body? (Please provide details.)

"Question 22: In the past two years, have you attended worship services, on average, one or more times a week, several times a month, once a month, on religious holidays, infrequently, almost never, or not at all?"

There are questions about familial relationships: "Question 18: Are you related to any member of any Tennessee governmental entity or any representative of Tennessee to a U. S. or International governing body?"

"Question 30: Do you and/or any member of your immediate or extended family own a combined total of five (5) percent or more of the shares in any corporation, limited liability corporation, partnership, public company or other commercial entity in Tennessee or elsewhere? (Provide details, including the approximate market value of any such shares.)"

"Question 32: Do you or any member of your immediate family receive any local, state or federal government subsidies?"

And there are a multitude of questions, naturally, having to do with social issues, namely homosexuality and abortion, one of which doesn't make any sense: "Question 41: Have you ever voted against an abortion bill?"

Whether that's a bill supporting abortion, opposing abortion, or what, is difficult to tell. Luckily, the respondent is urged to "provide details," a luxury not afforded for answers to Question 28: "Do you now hold, or have you ever held, membership(s) in the ACLU, Human Rights Campaign or National Conference for Community and Justice or any 'homosexual rights' organization?"

Jerry Flowers, part happy warrior/part cranky agitator who remains the only public face of this group after an entire year in existence, defends the survey as a measure of values and belief systems of candidates for public office. He is especially adamant in his defense of the questions regarding church membership and attendance.

"It would be an indicator of how strongly religious values are held," Flowers says. "Candidates used to trumpet their church membership in their campaign literature. The most recent Gallup poll showed that 95 percent of Americans profess a belief in God. I'm interested in knowing how many of our candidates for this election demonstrate a belief in God. You will notice that the question was not limited to Christians and attendance at Christian churches."

That's true, although it's worth wondering how CommonGoode would receive frequent attendance at, say, a mosque. But whether candidates used to "trumpet" their church membership in past political campaigns is debatable. For the most part, such information was usually limited to the inclusion of a candidate's religious affiliation, or perhaps membership at a local church, as one of a number of "civic activities" listed in a campaign brochure. On the national level especially, presidents and presidential candidates have been quite ecumenical, perhaps in part as a matter of political necessity. Most Americans would be hard-pressed to name the religious affiliation of any U.S. president besides John F. Kennedy, whose Catholicism was indeed "trumpeted"—by his political opponents. Even the church membership of current President George W. Bush, who makes no apologies for his deep-seated religious faith, is largely unknown. (Bush is a United Methodist.).

Flowers says the survey was designed by a handful of people, mostly from Nashville, although he received input from people in Memphis and East Tennessee. It would be interesting to find out from them, for instance, what the intended purposes of the other questions are, especially in the context of the social issues that motivate them. But getting perspectives from anyone in the group other than Flowers—or even discovering their identities—is an exercise in futility, especially for anyone from the Scene, which, Flowers says, is considered to be unfriendly to the cause.

Flowers defends this practice of secrecy by saying that many liberal activist groups aren't forthright with their membership either. All's fair in love, war and politics. In fact, folks on the left are taking the cue. The pro-gay group "Tennessee Guerilla Women" has recently become active on numerous issues, including the reappointment of lesbian Maria Salas to the Metro Human Relations Commission. Like CommonGoode.org, their activism is Internet-based.

Is anybody actually answering these questions? Flowers says indeed they are, and that those doing so didn't think the survey took too much time or was otherwise personally intrusive. He admits, though, that most of these folks were self-selected—people, he says, with "strong traditional values."

Calls from the Scene to a few random state legislators hoping for comment about the survey came up empty. None of those contacted had seen it, though this may just be the luck of the draw. Or, given that CommonGoode.org sent the surveys to legislators via e-mail, it's possible that very few have seen it at all, given that legislative e-mail often goes unchecked. Memphis Democratic Sen. Steve Cohen, however, a notable exception to this general rule, says that he hasn't received the survey either, but that he wouldn't answer it if he did.

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