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This Father's Day, one of most popular pastors in America will open his megachurch to homosexual dads, an event that would usually signal an extreme weather alert from old guard Republican evangelical leaders.

But by welcoming gay fathers into his Southern California flock, Rick Warren, author of the "The Purpose Driven Life," is not just living up to the highest standards of Christian fellowship, he's turning the page on a particularly embarrassing part of our politics.

Just to refresh: it was televangelist Pat Robertson who predicted "earthquakes, tornadoes and possibly even a meteor" would hit Orlando for inviting gays to Disney World, and Rev. John Hagee who blamed Hurricane Katrina on a vengeful God angered over a gay pride parade in New Orleans. And they did this even without Doppler radar.

The fact that these people were taken seriously about anything other than, say, what color socks to wear on bingo night, tells us something about how far we've strayed rom the pulpit into the town square.

Over the last 30 years, church and state have become far more entangled than any of our fair-minded founders and their better successors — including some chiseled on Mount Rushmore — envisioned.

The good tidings from Warren's Saddleback Church come at a time when Barack Obama has ditched his incendiary ex-preacher, and John McCain has separated himself from the apocalyptical Hagee.

It's a start, but how about a clean break? Let's go Godless for the rest of the campaign.

I know, it's not going to happen, with Obama courting evangelicals this week and McCain trying to figure what makes Catholics in the Rust Belt tick.

But for a moment, imagine no religion, as John Lennon sang.

Forty-eight years ago an Irish Catholic presidential candidate said this about a bedrock principle of his:

"I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute."

And, "I believe in a president whose views on religion are his own private affair."

That was John F. Kennedy, of course, sounding light years removed from Mitt Romney, who declared this year that "freedom requires religion," and Mike Huckabee, who called himself a "Christian leader" and advocated amending the Constitution to follow Biblical principles. Both men are being touted as running mates for McCain.

"Where we are today is almost the antithesis of Kennedy's time," said David Domke, a professor of communications at the University of Washington and co-author, with Kevin Coe, of "The God Strategy: How Religion Became a Political Weapon in America."

Not so long ago, politicians could talk about national defense or currency fluctuations without having to mention Him. But since 1980, the total number of references to God in major presidential speeches has jumped 120 percent over the preceding half-century, Domke and Coe found.

"It's the verbal equivalent of an American flag lapel pin: few notice if you do it, but many notice if you don't," Domke and Coe wrote in a recent essay in Time. Domke, by the way, is no tweedy secularist; his wife is a Presbyterian minister.

Obama has been the more overtly God-centric candidate in this campaign, perhaps because of the whispers that falsely paint him as a Muslim, or interchangeable blondes on Fox News who interpret playful hand gestures with his spouse as "a terrorist fist jab," as E.D. Hill said on air.

At a meeting with prominent Christian leaders on Tuesday, Obama discussed his "personal journey of faith," as one participant recounted. That, alone, goes against Kennedy's dictum of keeping it private.

Teddy Roosevelt, a McCain hero, was prescient on this point as well. He argued against putting, "In God We Trust," on the currency in 1907, saying it cheapens the divine. "It not only does no good," he wrote, "but it does positive harm."

To their credit, some ministers have learned from their fallen fellows of the cloth. Four years ago, Ted Haggard's phone number was on speed dial at the White House, and he regularly boasted of his political clout as head of the 30-million-member National Association of Evangelicals.

Then came his admission of patronizing a gay prostitute and buying crystal methamphetamine, a two-fer in the hypocrisy sweepstakes. It also made for one the strangest images on television — a smiling Haggard in his S.U.V., with wife and kids, talking about meth and massages from a buff male escort.

On the plus side, Pastor Ted is now welcome at Rick Warren's church on Sunday.

Joel Osteen, the feel-good Texas optimist who is perhaps the nation's most popular minister, and Warren have both disavowed politics this year. They will not endorse a candidate, allow politics in the service, or issue thinly disguised election "guidelines," hint, hint.

Bless 'em.

Now let the politicians pick up the cue, following advice of one of Teddy Roosevelt's Rushmore face mates.

"Say nothing of my religion," said Thomas Jefferson. "It's known to my God and myself alone."



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