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Patterson, on NPR, defends Christian political participation

BOSTON (BP)–Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Paige Patterson was a guest on National Public Radio’s “The Connection” broadcast nationally June 24. The subject of the one-hour segment guest-hosted by Michael Goldfarb was ostensibly whether churches are excessively involved in presidential politics.

Patterson represented the views of many Christians when he took the position that the First Amendment does not restrict churches in their effort to speak out on important moral and political issues. On the other hand, arguing that conservative denominations are inappropriately partisan in American politics today was Barry Lynn, executive director of the Americans United for Separation of Church and State based in Washington, D.C.

Lynn said that President George W. Bush crossed the line separating church and state when he addressed the Southern Baptist Convention in Indianapolis June 15, when his campaign sent an e-mail to 1,600 “friendly” church congregations in Pennsylvania to find people who would help with his re-election, and when he asked the Vatican to focus more attention on American bishops so they could talk more about the social issues that are important to the re-election campaign.

Patterson pointed out that there is little difference between how President Bush and others are appealing to supporters today and how many Democratic politicians have rallied for their causes in African American churches over the years. Additionally, Patterson said that what Bush was doing during his Vatican visit was expressing his personal convictions, which happen to dovetail with the convictions of many evangelical voting Christians.

Lynn was critical of the Bush campaign’s effort to woo votes from millions of conservative Christians.

“I don’t mind, and in fact encourage, community organizations including churches to talk about issues,” Lynn said. “It is when you cross the line into what is obviously and patently partisan political activity that I think you run into trouble not just with the IRS but you also run into trouble preserving the integrity of your own voice within the religious community.”

Goldfarb asked Patterson if, in his capacity as a seminary president, he has any policies about political candidates addressing students. Patterson said that there was little time during seminary chapels for political pitches, but that any candidate was welcome to address students and tell them why students should vote for them.

“They would have to understand that when they finish I may have some questions to ask them,” Patterson said. “And if it becomes apparent that they hold wrong views on moral issues, they may lose more voters than they gain.”

Goldfarb then wanted to know whether Patterson would welcome a representative from the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship on campus for a debate on the merits of the Southern Baptist Convention’s recent withdrawal from the Baptist World Alliance. Patterson expressed unreserved and enthusiastic willingness to do that. “However, I do not know what the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship has to do with the discussion of religion in politics right now,” Patterson said.

Moving the discussion forward, Goldfarb asked Patterson where the line is drawn in separating church from state.

“Remember that separation of church and state is not a constitutional subject,” Patterson began, noting that the First Amendment only prohibits Congress from establishing religion or prohibiting the free exercise of religion.

“I personally do not believe it is an effective or an appropriate place for partisan politics in the pulpits of our churches,” Patterson said. “I do not think preachers need to tell people who to vote for. That is the reason the Southern Baptist Convention now through its Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission has ‘iVoteValues.com’: to urge our people to register to vote and vote their values, not individuals, not parties.”

Lynn balked at the iVoteValues.com campaign.

“The Southern Baptist Convention has become the arm of the so-called religious right in this country,” Lynn said. “Parts of the [iVoteValues.com] website are under construction, but I am fearful that I will see that the values discussed on the homepage turn out to tie you directly to campaign party platforms soon; that will make it clear that real valued people are the people that vote for Republican candidates.”

Goldfarb revisited the issue of why the SBC withdrew from the BWA. Patterson explained how that decision was rooted in the SBC’s 25-year struggle to take the denomination back to the faith of early Baptist founders and reaffirm the inerrancy and absolute truth of the Bible.

“Having gone to the pain and effort of doing that, it makes no sense for us to then continue to give money and to lend our name to an organization that does not have those same convictions,” Patterson said. “Increasingly, the leaders of the BWA have demonstrated that they do not believe that.”

Lynn, who is an ordained United Church of Christ minister, agreed that all denominations have the right to associate with and support whatever organizations they desire. However, he voiced criticism that at the same convention where Baptist messengers voted to sever ties with the BWA because of its increasing tolerance for Baptist bodies that condone homosexual lifestyles, President Bush was invited – and John Kerry was not invited – to address SBC messengers and express solidarity with their moral convictions.

“It is difficult with a straight face to argue that the leadership at that convention was talking just about internal Baptist issues and was not trying to direct and indeed encourage people to vote for a particular set of candidates whose values allegedly mirror the ‘right ones,’ ‘the only true ones,’ ‘the biblical ones’ that Paige Patterson thinks he knows about,” Lynn said.

“It is not unusual for the SBC to invite the sitting president to address the convention,” Patterson responded. “And it is certainly true that President Bush holds many of the values that we hold. And I do not think it is partisan politics to get together with him or anyone else that holds those similar values and talk about them.”

Goldfarb, who was the London Bureau chief for NPR and currently reports on European and Middle East politics for NPR, injected his opinion at this point.

“The thing is, Paige,” the host said, “that when this kind of support is so palpable and so public, and there are meetings that are documented where the Bush-Cheney campaign actually pays for the meeting hall, people who are outside your religion are going to look at that and say, ‘There is going to be a bill that comes due for that support.’ It is the same for unions and the Democratic Party. It is the same for any other group that contributes a lot of money and manpower and woman-power to getting someone elected. There is a bill that comes due, and people are going to ask, ‘What is that bill going to be?’ And it will be the imposition of your values in a pluralistic both democracy and religious state. And that is what people will get exercised about.”

“Well, but Michael, let’s face the facts,” Patterson responded. “Somebody’s values are going to prevail in this country. And the values which prevail in a democracy of this variety should be those of the majority of the people. I know that America as a majority does not agree with everything we hold to. We preach it fervently from our pulpits in the hope that more and more people will agree. But there are many of our values that we hold, especially those that are related to the family, that are, according to all the polls, those that people in this country want to see carried out. I don’t think there is any ‘bill coming due’ on that. We are exercising our right as free Americans to be involved in the political process.”
An audio file of the program can be accessed by directing your Web browser to www.theconnection.org and clicking on the Archives link.

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  • Brent Thompson