Topeka Phill Kline's voice rises as he tells his story, then drops at crucial points to a hoarse whisper. He strides away from his podium frequently, reaching out to his audience, bending closer, gesturing, asking a few people's names.
The only time Kansas' attorney general comes anywhere close to touching upon politics is when he expresses a general frustration with what describes as the moral relativism marking American culture. He is telling his own story, of how he wandered away from God and how God pulled him back, citing Hosea in the Old Testament and moving through passages from Genesis to John's Gospel.
His audience Saturday morning was the men's group meeting in the basement of the Topeka Bible Church, where Kline and his family attend services. He's told the same story at other churches, but until this week, such activities didn't draw wider attention.
In running for re-election, Kline, a conservative Republican, formulated a "church effort" to take full advantage of his support among conservative Christians. He put it in writing in an internal memo to his staff on Aug. 8, and someone leaked it anonymously to reporters.
While audience members are aware of the resulting flap and few even joked about it, Kline didn't bring it up during his remarks. Instead, he told how he was estranged from his father, then reconciled to him, and how faith in Jesus brings hope.
"And where there is not hope, is there love? No," Kline said, whispering the last word. "Love dies. You see, without the foundation of truth in which you can have faith that gives birth to hope, you cannot have love. Without love, WE die. The assault upon truth is the assault upon love itself."
After the 60 or so audience members had breakfasted on sweet-smelling French toast, soft hash browns and crispy bacon - and after Kline had spoken - came an invitation to a political reception for Kline at the offices of Capital City Oil. Owner Marvin Spees is a Kline supporter.
"I hope you guys appreciate that we have somebody who is like-minded as attorney general," Spees told the gathering. "If we're to get more people in elected office that are standing on solid ground, God's people are going to have to get involved."
Kline touched on such receptions in his internal memo, which included directions to staff on how to make them as effective as possible. Among the suggestions were seeing that pastors invited a handful of "money people" and that his staff feed him Slimfast so as not to waste time with sit-down meals.
In one debate, Kline's Democratic challenger, Johnson County District Attorney Paul Morrison, called the memo cynical. Other critics contend it's inappropriate for Kline to put churches so directly into the campaign.
Kline counters that he's careful to see that the two are kept separate, that political events occur after services or church gatherings and off site.
Spees and other supporters dismissed the flap as mere politics. Jeff Sorensen, a Colgate-Palmolive manager who attended the Saturday breakfast even gave Kline a can of Slimfast, though Kline prefers its solid candy-like bars.
"Every candidate has a chief constituency they're trying to reach out to," Sorensen said. "He recognizes we're of common mind."
Speaking with two group members afterward, Kline said of the controversy, "It's another attack on motives - and intimidation. They're trying to say my motives are not sincere."
Mark Simpson, Morrison's campaign manager, said the memo gives Kansans a window into how Kline views politics and churches.
More on the Kline campaign
- Kline defends leaked memo during debate (09-15-06)
- Kline's memo blurs lines (09-14-06)
- Leaked memo details strategy (09-12-06)
- Kline's memo on church efforts (.pdf)
- Upcoming chat with Phill Kline (submit a question early)
- AG candidate says he'll halt abortion clinic investigations (09-06-06)
- Campaign Briefing blog
- More in Election 2006
"His words are there in his memo, and they can make of it what they want," he said. "The words speak for themselves."
And the Rev. Barry Lynn, a United Church of Christ minister who is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, still questioned whether Kline's activities are legally acceptable or whether churches risk their tax-exempt status.
"When you use a church event to lure people to a political event, frankly that does cross the line," Lynn said.
As for Kline's assurances that the two realms are separated enough, Lynn said: "Their goal should not be, 'How close to the line can we come and get away with it?' That's not a question pastors normally ask."
Not a political event
Kline didn't see his church basement event as political but in the Christian tradition of someone sharing testimony about how God has worked in his life.
He began, "I am here this morning to profess Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior and to tell you that anything that is good that comes from me, comes from Him."
He spoke without notes, his only guide a Bible bound in black leather with well-marked pages. He cited Hosea 2:10 in which God tells the prophet about his adulterous wife, "No one will take her out of my hands."
It's both a warning of judgment to people who wander away from God and a promise of love to those who return, Kline explains, telling his family story.
Kline's father, abandoned by his mother as a child, battled demons, including alcohol problems, and left Kline's family. Kline told his audience he chased approval to demonstrate that his father shouldn't have abandoned him. Then, after Kline turned 20, his father came back into his life.
"There was a steadiness about him. There was something about him that attracted me to him, even though I did not want to let go of the anger," Kline said. "It was my earthly father, who was abandoned at the age of 5 by his mother, who abandoned me when I was 5, who brought me to the knowledge of the truth of God's love."