Monday, September 18, 2006

A new group representing values voters on the religious left castigated the religious right yesterday, announcing plans to counter conservatives with a series of candidate fairs, voters guides and Web logs.

Fourteen activists, some of whom portrayed themselves as disenchanted evangelicals, announced the formation of “Red Letter Christians,” a group that says it bases its actions and political philosophy on the words of Jesus, which appear in red lettering in some versions of the Bible.

“The evangelical faith has been hijacked by right-wing zealots,” said Columbia University professor Randall Balmer, adding that when he quizzed eight conservative religious organizations on their positions on torture of terrorism suspects, only two responded. Both backed the Bush administration’s stance.

“I happen to think that’s morally bankrupt,” he said.

The event was a pre-emptive strike against the 1,500 to 2,000 people set to gather for a “Values Voter Summit” at the Omni Shoreham this weekend. The conference will feature activists such as American Values President Gary Bauer, columnist Ann Coulter, former Education Secretary William J. Bennett and several members of Congress.

“The liberal elite is surprisingly intolerant of democratic activity they don’t approve of,” Mr. Bauer said in response, “consistently condemning pro-marriage referendums, parental involvement in the schools and now the peaceful assembly of their fellow citizens to talk about the most important issues of the day.”

Red Letter Christians was organized by the evangelical left Sojourners magazine and its affiliate, Call to Renewal.

The Rev. Jim Wallis, founder of the magazine, said he will be debate former Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed this week on a new blog at Sojourners also plans to issue 200,000 “Voting God’s Politics” voter guides and sponsor an Oct. 2 candidates’ forum in the key electoral state of Ohio.

“The monologue of the religious right is finally over, and a new dialogue has just begun,” Mr. Wallis said. “That’s good news for churches, for politics and really, for both parties. We believe the debate on values should be central in American politics. The question is: Which values, whose values and how should we define moral values?”

The right has concentrated on opposition to same-sex “marriage” and abortion, he said, adding that the war in Iraq, poverty and the environment should equally concern evangelicals.

Also yesterday, Americans United for Separation of Church and State announced its new initiative against election-year politicking in churches. It will mail more than 117,000 letters to churches in 11 competitive election states informing them of Internal Revenue Service regulations.

Its executive director, the Rev. Barry Lynn, said the IRS has issued new guidelines to ensure churches don’t endanger their tax-exempt status by endorsing or opposing candidates. He criticized Focus on the Family for seeking coordinators in evangelical churches to distribute voter guides and engage voters.

“This is nothing less than an old-fashioned political machine,” Mr. Lynn said. “Why would [Focus founder] James Dobson want a specific contact in every church to coordinate election-year efforts if he did not want to use those churches to influence the outcome of the elections?”

He added, “I’m convinced this year that the IRS thinks things have gotten out of control, that church politicking has become a major problem, and they’re putting real teeth into their enforcement efforts.”

“Our guides are definitely not biased and fit within IRS law,” responded Focus Senior Vice President Tom Minnery. “We have expert attorneys who advise us every step of the way.”

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