A Colorado senator targeted in newspaper ads by Focus on the Family for blocking an up-or-down vote on President Bush’s judicial nominees called on the group to distance itself from a Southern Baptist leader for comments the senator said were anti-Catholic.

United States Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., leveled a jab at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Albert Mohler in a letter to Focus on the Family Chairman James Dobson.

It was the latest round in a war of words between Salazar, a Roman Catholic, and the group’s non-profit lobby arm, which took out ads calling on 20 senators in 15 states to “stop the nonsense” of filibustering to block 10 of Bush’s 52 appeals-court nominations.

On Thursday Salazar lashed out at Focus on the Family, charging the group is using “un-Christian” political tactics in the battle over judicial nominees.

The day before, Salazar told reporters in Washington, “I do think that what has happened here is there has been a hijacking of the U.S. Senate by what I call the religious right wing of the country.”

He singled out Focus on the Family by name, objecting to full-page newspaper ads placed by the ministry’s political arm, Focus on the Family Action.

“I think what has happened is Focus on the Family has been hijacking Christianity and become an appendage of the Republican Party,” Salazar said in an interview with Scripps Howard News Service. “I think it’s using Christianity and religion in a very unprincipled way.”

Focus on the Family spokesman Tom Minnery said he was “flabbergasted the senator would call our Christianity into question.”

“Some of the nominees will be filibustered by the Democrats because of their religious views,” said Minnery, vice president of public policy for Focus on the Family. “As a Catholic, I would think the senator would be especially alarmed about the anti-Catholicism of some of his colleagues.”

Salazar responded with a letter to Dobson, saying: “I have not encountered any feelings of anti-Catholicism from any of my fellow senators on either side of the aisle.”

“In contrast,” he continued, “I understand you are helping lead the effort on a national telecast against Democrats in the United States Senate with Dr. Al Mohler, among others. In March of 2000, Dr. Mohler said ‘I believe that the Roman church is a false church and it teaches a false gospel. And indeed, I believe that the pope himself holds a false and unbiblical office.’

“My faith is the cornerstone of my values, as I am sure it is with you as well. I call on you to repudiate Dr. Mohler’s comments and hope you distance yourself from those who serve to divide the world’s Christian churches against one another.”

Salazar went on to “further encourage you to cease your unfounded attacks on the faith of my Democratic colleagues.”

“The Senate controversy over judges is simply about whether the rules should be broken in the pursuit of power,” he said. “The controversy has nothing to do with the faith of any Democratic U.S. senator.”

Mohler, who last year joined Focus on the Family’s board of directors, made the comment quoted by Salazar in March 2000 on CNN’s “Larry King Live.”

According to a transcript posted on the Internet, King asked Mohler if he shared the view of university president Bob Jones that the Roman Catholic Church is “a cult.”

“Well, I think the word ‘cult’ is now basically useless in our common vocabulary, especially as applied in this sense,” Mohler said. “A cult means a small group. A cult, in our common cultural language, talks about some kind of psychological control.

“I’ll prefer to speak as a theologian. And as an evangelical, I believe that the Roman church is a false church and it teaches a false gospel. And indeed, I believe that the pope himself holds a false and unbiblical office.

“So I would prefer to use careful language, but I would not call Catholicism a cult, but I would draw the distinction between their understanding of the gospel and the evangelical understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Mohler also criticized efforts by Pope John Paul II to create a dialogue with Jews and Muslims.

“The larger problem I have with the pope–this pope in particular,” he said, “is how he has redefined the Christianity and the gospel. And he has actually embraced all monotheists, both Jews and the followers of Islam, as long as they’re sincere within the penumbra of the gospel, within the canopy of the gospel.

“And that is just unbiblical, and by the way, not very pleasing to either Jews or to Muslims either. We need to be very honest about our disagreements. We have a fundamental disagreement on the issue of truth.”

More recently, in a Weblog commenting on Pope John Paul II’s death, Mohler had kinder words for the pontiff.

“By any measure, John Paul II was one of the most influential figures on the world scene, leading over a billion Roman Catholics worldwide and exercising a significant influence on world affairs during some of the most tumultuous decades of the 20th century,” Mohler wrote.

“We should be unembarrassed and unhesitant to declare our admiration for John Paul II’s courageous stand against communism, his bold defense of human dignity and human life, and his robust and substantial defense of truth in the face of postmodernism.”

In Friday’s New York Times, Mohler called Salazar’s statement “absolutely ridiculous,” saying it is hardly news that evangelical Protestants and Catholics “differ on many key theological issues.” Mohler said he supported a Catholic nominee the Democrats had opposed.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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