Southern Baptists target political arena

INDIANAPOLIS Wed Jun 11, 2008 1:35pm EDT

Johnny Hunt, pastor of the nearly 17,000-member First Baptist Church in Woodstock, Georgia, answers questions during the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting at the Indiana Convention Center in Indianapolis, June 10, 2008. REUTERS/SBC/Handout

Johnny Hunt, pastor of the nearly 17,000-member First Baptist Church in Woodstock, Georgia, answers questions during the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting at the Indiana Convention Center in Indianapolis, June 10, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/SBC/Handout

INDIANAPOLIS (Reuters) - America's largest evangelical denomination adopted a resolution on political engagement on Wednesday signaling its intention to flex its muscles in the November presidential election.

"Christians should seek to apply their spiritual and moral values to the political process," read the resolution, adopted on the second and final day of the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting.

The 16 million-strong SBC is a bedrock of political and cultural conservatism and a key plank in the Republican Party's evangelical base which is credited with helping secure two White House terms for President George W. Bush.

Religion and politics often mix in America where levels of belief are much higher than those found in most affluent countries and one in four U.S. adults count themselves as evangelical Christians, giving them serious electoral clout.

U.S. religious organizations shy away from explicit partisan endorsements which could threaten their tax exempt status and the resolution adopted by the SBC on Wednesday was no exception.

But several Southern Baptists interviewed over the course of the conference left no doubt that they were in the Republican fold even if they viewed the party's presumptive nominee John McCain as the lesser of two liberals in the White House match-up with Democratic rival Barack Obama.

"We plead with all Christians to exercise vigorously their responsibilities to participate in the political process by registering to vote, educating themselves about the issues, and voting according to their biblical beliefs, convictions and values," read the resolution.

Voting by "biblical beliefs" is often code in such circles for supporting candidates who oppose abortion and gay rights and support moves to bring back school prayer.

Many conservative evangelicals are mistrustful of McCain on a host of issues but he has been consistently opposed to abortion rights and they view Obama as "ultra-liberal."

"We encourage our churches regularly to teach and preach biblical truth on moral issues and to urge their members to vote according to their beliefs," the resolution says.

The SBC was also scheduled on Wednesday evening to discuss a resolution, which it is expected to adopt, on the same-sex marriage battle brewing in California.

California is set for a pitched fight after it was announced last week that the November ballot would include a constitutional amendment limiting marriage to unions between men and women.

If a majority of California voters approve the measure, it would neutralize last month's state Supreme Court ruling that said preventing same-sex couples from marrying was unconstitutional and discriminatory.

"We strongly urge all Southern Baptists in the state of California to be informed about this issue and to exercise their civic and moral duty by working diligently to support and voting to pass this referendum," it says.

Initiatives to ban gay marriage played a role in Bush's 2004 re-election as they brought Republican conservative religious voters to the polls.

(Editing by David Wiessler)

(To read more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at blogs.reuters.com/trail08/)

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