By Bill Webb
The Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in Indianapolis June 15-16 offered a number of reminders that this is an election year — and that how voters cast their ballots for president is of the highest priority.
Promoted heavily was the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission's Web site urging voter registration and participation, ivotevalues.com. The site urges visitors to vote for candidates who reflect their own values. It urges churches to host voter registration emphases to encourage members and others to take advantage of their right and responsibility to vote.
The site is not intended to promote a particular political party or particular candidates, according to ERLC's president, Richard Land. The emphasis, he says, is upon evaluating candidates based on their specific positions on a host of issues. To go further would violate Internal Revenue Service rules for nonprofit entities like denominational agencies, conventions and churches.
By contrast, the convention invited the President of the United States — running for re-election on his party's ticket — to address messengers via live satellite feed. Wisely, the White House and the President agreed to participate.
To call SBC messengers a friendly crowd for the President would be a classic understatement. He was greeted with thunderous applause, approving cheers and sustained standing ovations. He was not greeted simply as the President, but as a presidential candidate.
A White House spokesman, Tim Goeglein, who preceded the President, thanked Southern Baptists for their prayers and their support of "the Bush-Cheney administration."
SBC president Jack Graham praised the President, too, noting that he and Southern Baptists have "strong, shared values."
The President, understandably enjoying the overwhelming response, wisely reminded messengers of his re-election platform, including his continuing war on terror.
Mr. Bush also addressed other issues, including:
— his support for the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman;
— his signing of a bill banning partial-birth abortion, and his support of the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which treats the murder of a pregnant woman as a crime against her unborn baby as well;
— his attempts to release federal funds to faith-based groups.
With an entourage of national media present covering the SBC annual meeting, the presidential appearance was a campaign stop to be coveted.
Southern Baptists traditionally have avoided the appearance of endorsing a political candidate, especially within months of a national election. They have studied the candidates and voted their consciences.
It is true that several of the SBC's top leaders are personal friends of the President and that the vast majority of Southern Baptists certainly are Bush supporters. It is likely that the vast majority of Southern Baptists support the President on most issues.
However, that does not negate the value of the principle. Churches and their conventions are wise not to enter into partisanship. Candidates deserve an equal opportunity to state their positions and convictions if they are invited at all.
Church men and women — like other citizens — make their best decisions when they hold candidates' and elected leaders' feet to the fire on the issues of the day. That usually means that it is unwise to grow too cozy with any party or candidate but to carefully evaluate each one.