President George W. Bush's re-election team is working aggressively to court religious conservatives and sent campaign staffer Ralph Reed to meet with leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) during its recent national meeting.
Reed, former executive director of the Christian Coalition, spoke to SBC pastors in Indianapolis June 17. According to a report in The New York Times, Reed addressed a "pastors reception" that was paid for by the Bush campaign. As The Times put it, Reed urged "pastors to do everything short of risking their churches' tax-exempt status to support the president's re-election."
Reed, who oversees Bush's re-election effort in the South, recommended that pastors sponsor voter registration, identify someone in the congregation to "help in voter registration and outreach" and organize a "'Party for the President' with other pastors" closer to the election.
Jack Graham, the departing president of the SBC, hosted the event. Graham, who was tapped by Reed to serve as a figurehead, insisted that he was acting as a private citizen, not as outgoing president of the denomination even though the event took place during the SBC's annual meeting.
According to the SBC's news service, Baptist Press, Graham later compared his affection for Bush with that shown by evangelicals for Ronald Reagan.
"One of the reasons we loved Ronald Reagan so much is because he endorsed so many of our values and helped us in our country and our culture," Graham said. "That's the way I feel about any candidate, whether it's this president or any other president. We're seeking that candidate to endorse us.... We're thankful that George W. Bush has endorsed many of the values that we hold dear."
Officials of the nation's largest Protestant denomination have made no secret of their fondness for Bush. Richard Land, head of the SBC's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, told The Times, "At least 200 people have come up to me and said, 'You know, Dr. Land, you were right. George Bush is the real deal.'"
Bush addressed the gathering live via satellite from the White House. During the presentation, the president touted his signing of two bills intended to restrict abortion and pledged "to build a culture of life in America." He also promoted his "faith-based" initiative, favored a ban on cloning and reiterated his support for a constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage.
"Your convention," said Bush, "has a proud tradition going back to your first gathering in Augusta, Georgia almost 160 years ago.... All of you are living out the high calling of spreading the Good News and proclaiming the Kingdom of God." (The denomination was formed in 1845 when Baptists in the South split from their northern co-religionists in order to defend slavery.)
The SBC event showcased the denomination's far-right views. During a convention sermon June 16, the Rev. Steve Gaines of the First Baptist Church of Gardendale, Ala., blasted reproductive rights, gay rights and "liberal militant groups" that seek "the removal of all references to the Lord Jesus Christ out of public life."
Gaines compared doctors who perform legal abortions to the terrorists who decapitated American hostage Nicholas Berg in Iraq.
"Abortion is murder," he said. "Abortion is sin. Abortion is an abomination in the eyes of a holy God.... I submit to you today, ladies and gentlemen, that in God's eyes abortion is nothing short of child sacrifice."
He also urged attendees to oppose "pro-homosexual" programs on television such as "Will & Grace" and "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" and implored them to "help curb the epidemic of lesbianism."
"God characterized homosexuality as an abomination in Leviticus 18, and He sandwiched it right between adultery, child sacrifice and having sex with an animal," Gaines thundered.
Transitioning into politics, Gaines asserted, "Encourage your people to vote only for candidates who have Christian values.... They need to let God tell them how to vote. That's what we need to tell our people. We need to tell them not to vote their pocketbooks but to vote principles."
Gaines said conservatives reclaimed the Southern Baptist denomination from "moderate and liberal theologians" 25 years ago, and Southern Baptists should "now lead the way...for God's people in this country to take back our nation from the militant gay activists."
To help achieve that national takeover, the SBC has launched a voter initiative called "iVoteValues." The drive is aimed at convincing Baptist churches to register as many voters as possible and encourage congregants to put social issues ahead of other concerns when they cast their ballots.
During the recent SBC meeting, the 8,500 "messengers" (as attendees are called) adopted a resolution urging all Christians "to vote in accordance with biblical values."
Denominational leaders unveiled part of the new strategy: a 77-foot-long, 18-wheel truck that will traverse the nation registering voters. It will make a series of stops where Religious Right leaders such as James Dobson, Jay Sekulow and Jerry Falwell will speak.
"I am hoping that Southern Baptists and millions of evangelical Christians will get on the truck and vote their values this November," outgoing SBC President Graham said during the unveiling.
Baptists will also target a younger crowd for its outreach efforts. During the convention, evangelist Franklin Graham called on attendees to place child evangelists in public schools.
"I want to see a child, at least one child, in every public school in America who is trained as a witness for Jesus Christ," Graham said. He pledged to train children over the internet and issue them cards as "certified evangelists."
"There is no other way to God except through Jesus Christ," Graham said. "Oh, is that offensive? I'm so sorry, but it's the truth."