Thursday, October 21, 2004

Local mainline and evangelical churches are approaching political issues from different perspectives and with different purposes.

“It seems to me, as I look around at churches in general, that just as you have red and blue states, you have red and blue churches,” said the Rev. Robert Hardies, pastor of All Souls Unitarian Church in Columbia Heights.

Mr. Hardies’ church, which has a largely liberal, diverse congregation, has registered voters at nightclubs in the District and is sending a team to Florida to monitor the election.

But the Rev. Lon Solomon, senior pastor of 12,000-member McLean Bible Church, one of the largest evangelical churches in Fairfax County, has addressed abortion and same-sex “marriage” but won’t mention politics at the pulpit.

“Our focus is on bringing people into relationship with Jesus Christ. We believe that when that happens, the right decisions will be made at the public-policy level,” said Denny Harris, director of ministry operations at McLean.

Meanwhile, a nondenominational black megachurch in Prince George’s County plans to bus elderly members to the polls on Election Day.

“I have a one-phrase campaign: No vote, no voice. Get out and vote,” said the Rev. Betty P. Peebles, senior pastor of Landover’s Jericho City of Praise church, which boasts 15,000 members.

One of the most hotly contested elections in years has driven significant voter turnout and registration drives in churches. The Bush administration has worked to mobilize the 4 million evangelicals who did not vote in 2000, while liberal churches have organized at the grass-roots level.

“I get a sense from my parishioners that they have a deep concern about [the election]. A lot of them talk about it as being the most important in their lifetime,” said the Rev. Dean Snyder, pastor of Foundry United Methodist Church in Dupont Circle, which serves a largely liberal and homosexual congregation.

“There is an urgency because so many issues that Scripture clearly speaks to are going to be influenced by this election,” said Joshua Harris, senior pastor of the 3,000-member Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, who will speak about same-sex “marriage” on Sunday. He will say that God intends marriage to be between one man and one woman.

“I’m unapologetic about that,” Mr. Harris said. “I will not compromise what Scripture teaches. That does not mean that I’m stumping for a political candidate or a particular course of action.”

The 27-year-old church is in the midst of a monthlong preaching series on politics and culture. In past elections, Covenant Life has done little more than encourage its members to vote.

This year, however, is different. On Sunday, Covenant Life flew in a theology professor from Phoenix to discuss the major issues that conservative and liberal churches believe would be decided by electing President Bush or Democratic challenger Sen. John Kerry.

Wayne Grudem, a professor of theology at Phoenix Seminary who has crafted a statement on issues signed by more than 80 evangelical leaders and scholars, discussed the U.S. Supreme Court justices, the war on terror, homosexual “marriage,” abortion and other issues.

“There are some affairs going on that dictate a more vocal push to the people that you’ve got to get out to vote,” Mrs. Peebles said, citing the war in Iraq and same-sex “marriage” as two of the most-pressing issues she has addressed for her congregation at Jericho City of Praise.

She has told her congregation that the Bible says marriage is between a man and a woman.

Mrs. Peebles said she has promoted voting since founding the church in 1969, but that she is pressing her 15,000 members harder this year about their civic duty.

Jericho City of Praise has registered voters in the lobby and was to sponsor a meeting last night to kick off a gathering of an expected 40,000 to 50,000 Christians on the Mall today.

Although the America for Jesus rally is not political, organizers say, “The United States is in severe moral decline and that only prayer will help change the course of the nation.”

Local pastors steered clear of talking specifically about presidential candidates or political parties. Instead, most pastors have taken definitive stands on issues, and left it up to congregants to fill in the blanks as to which candidate’s views align with their positions.

“We speak to these subjects, but not in political terms,” said Bill Shuler, pastor of Capital Life Church in Rosslyn, which is attended by Republican and Democratic members of Congress.

“The value God places on all human life, the need to protect and help the less fortunate, [and] the sanctity of marriage are all clear biblical principles, as is love. The church at its best lifts a standard of righteousness but cannot legislate such. It is a matter of the heart and we call upon God to work within the heart,” he said.

At Foundry United, Mr. Snyder has not explicitly indicated for which candidate his 1,300 congregants should vote. But, he said, one-quarter of his congregation is homosexual, and he has been explicit about his views on how the government should treat the same-sex “marriage” issue.

“People have surely had no question about what I think about the importance of committed relationships having the support of the larger community, whether they are gay or straight,” Mr. Snyder said.

He added that many of his church’s members have told him they are traveling to swing states such as West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan “to help turn out voters.”

“But that’s not a thing we’ve organized in the church,” he said.

All Souls Unitarian Church has registered more than 400 voters at local Metro stations, community meetings and nightclubs, said Mr. Hardies, the church’s pastor.

He will lead a group of members on a trip to Tampa, Fla., next weekend to monitor polling places for civil-rights violations.

“There’s a lot at stake in this election,” he said.

For some pastors, the election is simply part of a bigger picture.

“I view this as a serious chance to pastor people by seizing on the thing I know we’re all thinking about, to use it as an opportunity to say, ‘What does God’s word have to say?’ and to remind us to be centered on the Gospel at a time when it’s really easy to let other things become the predominant focus,” said Mr. Harris, pastor of Covenant Life.

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