Democrats have spent much of the time since the 2015 legislative session ended preparing and announcing candidates for the 2016 Federal elections. In anticipation of a possible Republican gubernatorial candidacy, several arms of the party have been sending out investigative information about Gianforte’s religion and donations to religious-themed charities such as the Glendive Dinosaur and Fossil Museum and the Montana Family Foundation. However, the strategy could prove risky if voters believe that the attacks on Gianforte are also on their faith in state in which a majority still identify as Christian.
One thing that has so far withstood scrutiny is the religious faith of current Democratic governor, Steve Bullock. Despite several calls to Governor Bullock’s office and both of his communication directors over a week’s time, no one would comment or even officially confirm details of Bullock’s faith or church attendance, despite serving four years as Attorney General and three years as governor. While sites like Wikipedia and others list him as a Roman Catholic, at a lobbying day event in February, Bullock told a crowd at the Plymouth Congregational Church in Helena that it was awkward speaking at the front of the church since it was his “home” church and he usually was listening from the pews.
Plymouth Congregational Church in Helena is a member of the United Church of Christ, a liberal denomination of Christianity which holds many social justice and liberal views on various issues. Other prominent political members of the UCC include former Democratic Senator Max Baucus and president Barack Obama. President Obama later announced amidst his presidential campaign that he was leaving his Chicago Trinity UCC after racially charged statements by Reverend Jeremiah Wright Jr. became national news.
The UCC may also inform and support many of Bullock’s more liberal positions. On issues ranging from abortion to immigration, UCC and its affiliates often take the same line as the Democratic party. Here’s a look at a few of UCC’s positions on political issues:
UCC has supported since the early 1970s, “that access to safe and legal abortion is consistent with a woman’s right to follow the dictates of her own faith.” UCC often also partners with Planned Parenthood of America in working on social justice issues related to providing abortions. UCC even provides tracts from Planned Parenthood in their churches, including the Plymouth Congregational Church in Helena.
In 2012, when Bullock was narrowly elected, voters approved Legislative Referendum 120, which required anyone under 16 years of age to have the consent of their parents before obtaining an abortion. In 2013 the Republican controlled legislature passed a bill that further sought to require all girls under 18 to get notarized consent before obtaining an abortion. Although Bullock publicly opposed the bill passed by the legislature, he declined to veto it so that Planned Parenthood could challenge both in the Montana courts. Both laws still are in legal limbo, with the Montana Supreme Court in February 2015 overturning a district court’s ruling that blocked implementation of the laws.
UCC has been active in working with immigration groups to help pass reforms that would provide amnesty for many people already in the country illegally. In addition to creation of an Immigrant Welcoming Fund, UCC branches in the southwest have provided sanctuary and support to illegal immigrant facing deportation. UCC is on record as supporting the DREAM Act, the most recent attempt at immigration reform in the U.S. Congress that has been criticized largely on the right for doing little to secure the Southern border, while allowing millions to become citizens through government policies and programs. UCC also quotes Leviticus 19:33 which states, “When the alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself.”
In 2012, the same year Bullock was elected by a slim margin, 80 percent of Montana voters approved a legislative referendum that would have prohibited governmental agencies in the state from hiring or providing services to illegal immigrants. The law was challenged by the Montana Immigrant Justice Alliance, and the statewide education union MEA-MFT in court and was overturned because First District Court Judge Jeffrey Sherlock said it conflicted with federal law and language included in the law including references to terms such as ‘illegal alien.’ The Republican legislature sought to save and clarify the law with an amendment in a bill passed and sent to Governor Bullock’s desk, but he vetoed the bill. Bullock’s spokesman Dave Parker told reporter John Adams at the time that Bullock never supported the law when he was Attorney General and was happy with seeing it overturned.
Abortion and immigration are just two of the many issues in which UCC is involved, among many others. UCC is very active in getting its members registered to vote and active in the electoral process. Because it is a non-profit, UCC is allowed to conduct educational outreach on issues, voter registration and candidate forums, but not allowed to directly endorse candidates or parties. However, it faces the same criticism that many liberal groups state and nationwide do, since presumably its most focused on getting its own members to the polls, who already share their own left-leaning worldview.
Although the election for governor is still 16 months away, if Democratic allies continue their attacks on Gianforte based mostly on his religious beliefs and religious charitable donations, Bullock may have to stop his silence on his own religion and whether or not he condones attacks on opponents based upon their religious beliefs. Whether or not the attacks on Gianforte remain a smaller issue aimed primarily to motivate the Democratic base or become a larger issue pitched to moderate voters as the election gets closer remains to be seen.