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ERLC presidential candidate forum sparks discussion

NASHVILLE (BP) — A presidential candidate forum to be hosted by the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission Aug. 4 at the Send Conference in Nashville has sparked discussion — and a variety of opinions — among Southern Baptists.

Some have defended the ERLC’s scheduled interviews with Republicans Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio as consistent with the goals of a missions conference sponsored by the North American Mission Board and International Mission Board. Others have asked why the ERLC did not invite other candidates and how the Bush and Rubio interviews differ from a highly criticized decision by the 2015 Southern Baptist Convention Pastors’ Conference to invite then-likely presidential candidate Ben Carson to speak.

The Pastors’ Conference and Carson, who is now officially in the presidential field, later “mutually agreed” that Carson would not address the Columbus, Ohio, gathering because his presence might have been a distraction from the meeting’s emphases of unity and prayer.

ERLC President Russell Moore told Religion News Service he believes the candidate forum at the Send Conference is different from Carson’s invitation to the Pastors’ Conference because Bush and Rubio will be participating in a dialog rather than preaching sermons.

“What we’re doing at [Send] is quite different,” Moore noted. “We’re having a conversation with people and not treating them as spiritual leaders. We’re instead treating them as what they are — people who are running to lead the country.”

An ERLC press release said Republican candidates were eligible to be invited if they were polling, at the time their invitations were issued, at 10 percent in the Real Clear Politics national average, an aggregation of multiple polls. The ERLC said in an email to Baptist Press that each Republican candidate to reach 10 percent between May 1 and a month before the Send Conference was invited. According to the Real Clear Politics website, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker both reached 10 percent during that time period along with Bush and Rubio.

Moore wrote in a blog post that he invited Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton, but she declined.

Baptist21, a network of younger Southern Baptist leaders that objected to Carson’s invitation to the Pastors’ Conference, published a blog article containing “a few initial thoughts about why [they] aren’t as concerned with the Send invites.” The Send Conference “has been marketed for all people” rather than just pastors and “seems to be broader in scope” than the Pastors’ Conference, B21 wrote. Candidates at Send will be “interviewed specifically on religious liberty issues” rather than speaking “in a sermonic fashion,” and the ERLC invited candidates of both major parties.

B21 concluded, “Whether or not there is enough progress [from the Pastors’ Conference to the Send Conference] to avoid diluting our message and mission is yet to be seen. Some B21 members are skeptical.”

The SBC Voices blog, which also published an article critical of Carson’s invitation, published a more neutral article related to the Bush and Rubio interviews. SBC Voices editor Dave Miller wrote, “If we criticized the [Pastors’ Conference] … when Dr. Carson was invited to speak, how can we not speak out and at least ask questions when something like this takes place?”

Miller, pastor of Southern Hills Baptist Church in Sioux City, Iowa, concluded that he would “reserve judgment” because there “seem to be some significant differences about this situation from the one at the Pastors’ Conference.”

Ted Traylor, pastor of Olive Baptist Church in Pensacola, Fla., tweeted in response to a BP announcement of the Bush and Rubio interviews, “I like this but confused. After outcry over Carson at Pastors’ Conference this looks like a double standard.”

CBN News chief political correspondent David Brody asked in an online commentary why Southern Baptist presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee were not invited to the Aug. 4 event. Brody quoted Don Hinkle, editor of Missouri Baptists’ newsjournal The Pathway, as saying, “There is an appearance of favoritism and a lot of people are asking why do such a thing 15 months before a general election — at a missions conference, no less.”

Hinkle recommended, “Let the field thin out, then do something, say next spring or early summer … The present situation is not prudent. Southern Baptists are open-minded and, at this point, want to maintain a sense of fairness.”

Moore told Brody in a statement, “When the North American Mission Board asked us to have a conversation with candidates, I wanted to have all the candidates. Unfortunately, there are roughly 144,000 candidates running this year. So we determined objective criteria for polling, as laid out in the press release and invited candidates from both parties who met that standard. I look forward to having conversations with all the candidates, of both parties. This is an ongoing conversation. We had to start somewhere and the polling averages gave us an objective criteria to do so.”

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