Sunday, July 24, 2005

COLUMBIA, Md. — Some Marylanders who describe themselves as progressive Christians are organizing to counter conservative religious groups that they say are dominating political debates about moral and religious issues.

“We’ve allowed the Christian right to commandeer and exclusively appropriate the term Christian for themselves,” said Paul Verduin, a Silver Spring resident who has helped start Maryland Christians for Justice and Peace. “We refuse to be marginalized by some of their right-wing and extreme positions.”

To be sure, conservative and fundamentalist churches that once avoided politics are increasingly active in national and state governments over the last three decades — lobbying state and federal legislators on such issues as abortion, stem-cell research and same-sex “marriage.”

Conservative religious groups played an important role in some battleground states in the 2004 presidential election, including Florida and Ohio, both of which President Bush won.

The 20 persons who gathered recently at an Episcopal church in Columbia to talk about the future of the new group came from a variety of religious backgrounds, including the Church of Christ and Lutheran, Methodist and Roman Catholic churches. They also have been active in issues such as civil rights, the environment, war and helping the poor and elderly.

A big first step for members has been to agree on which issues to focus. So far they are united on one issue: the belief that the most important teachings of Jesus are not dominating the political dialogue in Maryland and elsewhere in the country.

William Neil of Montgomery County said he was drawn to the group because he believes the Christian right “has a monopoly” on the debate.

He also said the religious right is directing its energies into two issues, abortion and homosexual rights, which he calls a “distortion of the Christian gospel.”

Carrie Gordon Earll, spokeswoman for Focus on the Family, a national political action group that rallied evangelical Christians during the last presidential campaign, said there is enough room in the political system for Christian groups that want to work on issues such as peace and aid to the poor.

Mrs. Earll said if the group is forming to advocate for “the killing of pre-born children and [the] approval of homosexual marriage, then [it can] meet us in the public arena because we oppose those things based on biblical values.”

However, those issues were not part of the group’s recent discussions and were not included in a list of potential issues that might be the subject of lobbying campaigns.

Two Republican state senators aligned with conservative religious organizations — Larry E. Haines and Alex X. Mooney — say the religious right does represent Christian values.

Mr. Haines of Carroll County said his independent Baptist church and other churches in the county are active in helping the poor and the elderly. But opposition to abortion and homosexuality is the biblical position to take, he said.

Mr. Mooney of Frederick County said conservative and liberal Christians “don’t necessarily disagree” on helping the poor.

However, he thinks the better approach would be helping through churches and the community, not with government programs. “You [also] don’t even have to be Christian to be against abortion or special rights for homosexuals,” said Mr. Mooney, a Catholic.

The idea for the new group came from a discussion among Marylanders who in March attended an Ecumenical Advocacy Days for Global Peace with Justice gathering in the District. Two organizational meetings have been held, and a third is scheduled for September.

The group has adopted a mission statement to support “legislation, budgets and policies bringing justice and peace to our state, our nation and our world.”

The organization will seek to build alliances with existing progressive Christian organizations as well as non-Christian groups, Mr. Verduin said.

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