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Land: ERLC did not try to tell pastors what to say on Ashcroft

WASHINGTON (BP)–The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission would not try to “tell pastors what to say from their pulpits” and did not do so in a recent incident involving South Carolina Baptists, agency head Richard Land said.

On Jan. 27, the South Carolina Baptist Convention repudiated an e-mail distributed a day earlier by one of its staff members urging pastors to ask their congregations to contact one of their United States senators, Ernest Hollings, in support of the Senate confirmation of John Ashcroft as attorney general. The message from Joe Mack, director of the state convention’s Christian Life Concerns Department, included the phone number for Hollings’ Washington office and asked pastors to provide it to their congregations.

An e-mail from Scott Vaughan, director of the convention’s marketing department, followed Mack’s by a day and said the Christian Life Concerns director had acted “without official clearance from the Convention.”

Vaughan also wrote, “The South Carolina Baptist Convention, through its Christian Life & Public Affairs Committee, studies and may make recommendations regarding moral concerns of public interest. However, this work does not include taking positions on political issues; nor does this work speak for or against the endorsement of political candidates or political appointees.”

Both e-mails went to a list of about 300 pastors and laity.

Mack’s e-mail followed by two days a targeted e-mail supporting Ashcroft from the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission’s Washington office. The ERLC e-mail urged Southern Baptist ethics leaders in six states to distribute to others requests for contacts to Democratic senators who had not announced publicly how they would vote. The ERLC had endorsed Ashcroft, widely known as an evangelical Christian and a pro-life, pro-family advocate.

In the Jan. 24 e-mail, Shannon Royce, the ERLC’s director of government relations, asked recipients to pray for Ashcroft and to contact their senators to ask them to support his confirmation. She also asked the recipients to pass the e-mail on “to others in your network … or like-minded believers.” It did not request pastors to address the issue in a worship service.

In a note at the top of Royce’s e-mail, King Sanders, the ERLC’s director of constituent services, requested the recipients distribute the message to “your network/contacts.”

Among the seven senators in six states cited in the ERLC e-mail was Hollings. A day after the ERLC e-mail was sent, Hollings announced he would vote against Ashcroft’s confirmation. His decision was reported in the Jan. 26 issue of The Washington Post.

Mack’s e-mail said the Washington office of the ERLC “has asked us to alert South Carolinians and ask for immediate action.” Hollings had announced his opposition to Ashcroft, said Mack, who asked recipients to call Hollings’ office to request his support for the nominee. He also asked pastors to make the announcement from their pulpits Jan. 28.

Vaughan’s e-mail said Mack’s message “encouraged you to lead your church in protest of Sen. Hollings’ decision.”

The ERLC’s Washington office “requested Mack to contact South Carolina Baptists concerning this action,” Vaughan said in his e-mail.

ERLC President Richard Land said, however, his agency did not ask for pastors to call for support of Ashcroft before their congregations.

“We would never attempt to tell pastors what to say from their pulpits,” Land said. “First, we don’t have, and wouldn’t want, the authority to do that, and second, anyone who knows Baptist preachers knows it would be counter-productive.”

The ERLC’s Royce said her alert was sent to Southern Baptists in the states of key senators who had not declared their positions. The ERLC was unaware Hollings would announce his position a day after her e-mail went out, she said. “We were not asking people to protest a senator’s announced position,” Royce said.

She appreciates the work of Mack and other state Christian ethics workers, Royce said, and can understand how an attempt to exert a godly influence on government can sometimes go amiss.

“Sometimes in the public-policy arena things happen so fast,” Royce said. “When you act quickly to call others to express their Christian convictions, there are times when you realize later you could have handled things a little differently.”

Land disagreed with Vaughan’s implication the Ashcroft nomination is a political issue.

“The ERLC does not endorse candidates for elected office,” Land said. “John Ashcroft was not a candidate. He was a nominee. This was a policy issue. The attorney general’s office is a policy position. And, as has often been said, people are policy. John Ashcroft is a man of sterling integrity and bedrock Christian faith.

“Ashcroft’s nomination should be important to all Christians for another reason,” Land said. “At stake in this process is the ability of people with strong evangelical convictions to be eligible to serve in public office. Many of his opponents were seemingly attempting to construct a defacto, anti-evangelical, unconstitutional test for office, which would at the very least require that evangelicals declare they would not allow their faith to impact their performance in office.

“Much of the opposition to Ashcroft amounted to nothing less than religious profiling, in which people are dismissed and disqualified merely because they are evangelical Christians, and that is every bit as wrong as racial profiling,” Land said.

The ERLC’s Washington office sends out alerts periodically to the ethics/public-policy representatives in Baptist state conventions. These e-mails normally concern pieces of legislation in Congress.

The agency also distributed a Jan. 10 e-mail concerning Ashcroft to a larger group of state convention reps.