"Vote your values" is a message being repeated in many houses of worship this election season, but what that means depends on the messenger.
In the latest of a spate of voter education and registration efforts aimed at religious voters sympathetic to President Bush, Focus on the Family on Friday released an open letter "stressing the importance of relying on biblical values in selecting candidates on Election Day."
"Biblical" values at stake in the upcoming election include Supreme Court justices, terrorism, abortion, homosexual marriage, embryonic stem-cell research and use of natural resources, according to the letter signed by three Focus on the Family executives and endorsed by 71 ministry leaders, including a number of Southern Baptists.
Liberal religious leaders, meanwhile, launched a 40-day period of prayer, fasting and work urging Americans to "Vote ALL Your Values," and specifically truth, justice and community among all nations and faiths.
While people might not think of the appointment of Supreme Court justices as an ethical issue, the conservative leaders admit, their letter says court decisions allowing abortion, pornography and gay marriage, while banishing prayer and displaying the Ten Commandments in government buildings, make it one.
Defense against terrorists finds biblical basis in Bible verses in First Peter and Romans describing the role of government as to "punish those who do evil" and to "bear the sword," which the letter views as a reference to "use force to oppose violent evil."
On the environment, the conservative religious leaders say the Bible calls on humans to "subdue" and "have dominion" over the earth. While the Bible calls for responsible stewardship of natural resources, the letter says it "does not view 'untouched nature' as the ideal state of the earth, but expects human beings to develop and use the earth's resources wisely for mankind's needs."
"We believe that public policy based on the idealism of 'untouched nature' hinders wise development of the earth's resources and thus contributes to famine, starvation, disease and death among the poor. We believe the ethical choice is for candidates who will allow resources to be developed and used wisely, not for candidates indebted to environmental theories that oppose nearly all economic development in our nation and around the world."
Signatures represent only the personal views of the individuals, the letter says. Their churches and institutions are listed for identification purposes.
Signers include Daniel Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary; E. Ray Clendenin, an executive editor at Broadman & Holman Publishers; former SBC president Tom Elliff, pastor of First Southern Baptist Church of Del City, Okla.; Ronnie Floyd, pastor of First Baptist Church in Springdale, Ark.; Jim Henry, pastor of First Baptist Church in Orlando, Fla., also a past SBC president; Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary; and 11 professors at Baptist-affiliated Christian colleges and theological seminaries.
The pro-Kerry "call to action" meanwhile, reminds Americans that the progressive faith community previously came together for the abolition of slavery, civil rights and the effort to fight poverty.
"In the midst of the most important election in a generation, some vocal religious groups are trying to convince America that our faith calls us to vote only on a narrow set of issue and values," the statement says. "Our message to America is: Vote ALL Your Values!"
The initiative's plan of action declares Saturday, Oct. 16 a "national day of action" urging faith communities to "move from sacred places to civic spaces," organizing marches and vigils in front of public offices. Other activities include a "hungering for justice" fast on the day and a non-partisan voter mobilization effort.
The open letter carries 17 signatures, including James Forbes, senior minister of The Riverside Church in New York City; Welton Gaddy, a Baptist minister and president of the Interfaith Alliance and Robert Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches.
Another signer, Jim Wallis of Sojourners, is on a Call to Renewal "Rolling to Overcome Poverty" bus tour that started Wednesday in Minnesota.
"Poverty is on the rise in America and, according to the Bible, that is a religious issue," Wallis wrote on the Sojourners Web site. "At that is the message of the Call to Renewal bus tour—poverty is a religious issue, and should also be an electoral issue in this election year."
Outreach to church groups by the Bush campaign and the religious right—along with counter-campaigns by socially progressive religious organizations—have led to an unusual number of disputes over the role of churches in politics this year.
American United for the Separation of Church and State has reported congregations to the IRS alleging improper endorsements of both Bush and Kerry. The tax code prohibits tax-exempt organizations, including churches, from endorsing candidates but allows advocacy of issues.
For that reason, registration efforts like the Southern Baptist Convention's iVoteValues.com state they are non-partisan, while focusing efforts on registering voters likely to vote Republican and handing out voter guides that critics say amount to an implied endorsement of Bush.
Call to Renewal's non-partisan voter turnout effort, meanwhile, will focus on millions of low-income and first-time voters who have recently registered, groups more likely to vote for Kerry.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.