Evangelical Voters More Jaded in 2006

Christian conservatives, traditionally a reliable Republican constituency, aren't necessarily a GOP gimme this time around.
( [email protected] ) Sep 22, 2006 02:04 PM EDT

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Christian conservatives, traditionally a reliable Republican constituency, aren't necessarily a GOP gimme this time around. There is an undercurrent of concern that some evangelicals, unhappy that the GOP-led Congress and President Bush haven't paid more attention to gay marriage and other "values" issues, may stay home on Election Day or even vote Democratic.

"Conservative Christians are somewhat disenchanted with Republicans," said Kenyn Cureton, vice president for convention relations with the executive committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination with nearly 16 million members.

Religious conservatives are unhappy the Republican-led Congress hasn't paid enough attention to "values issues," he said, noting that even a push this summer against same-sex marriage came too late.

"It has not escaped our notice that they waited until just a few months from the November elections to address our agenda," Cureton said.

Jonathan Gregory, 38, a deacon at Grace Baptist Church in Bethpage, Tenn., said he may not vote GOP this fall, even though he considers himself a Republican and has voted for President Bush.

"I will vote conservative across the board, depending on the candidates' stance on abortion, gay marriage and their support of the military," Gregory said.

Voters like Gregory were once considered the president's strongest supporters. Exit polls showed 78 percent of white evangelicals voted for him in 2004. But an Associated Press-Ipsos poll conducted Sept. 11-13 indicated 42 percent of white evangelicals disapprove of the job Bush has done as president.

His approval rating among evangelicals is still better than he gets among Americans generally, but the poll shows Democrats have made slight gains among moderate white evangelical voters.

Conservative Christian groups have started trying to mobilize evangelical voters this fall by focusing on issues such as gay marriage and abortion. A "Values Voters" summit that has attracted several potential 2008 presidential candidates gets under way Friday in Washington.

The Colorado-based Focus on the Family has started voter registration drives in eight states, according to the group's Web site. The Southern Baptist Convention is helping promote a Focus on the Family DVD about gay marriage.

The DVD and booklet about gay marriage entitled "Why Not Gay Marriage?" aims to "equip Christians with answers to some of the most often asked questions in the gay marriage debate."

Neither group is endorsing candidates, which they're not allowed to do because of their tax-exempt status, but they are encouraging Christians to vote on "values issues," Cureton said.

The nearly 70-minute Focus on the Family DVD gives answers to 10 questions, such as "How will my same-sex marriage hurt your marriage?" and "Is it healthy to subject children to experimental families?"

David Masci, senior research fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, said gay marriage is approaching abortion in terms of the weight it's given among conservative Christians.

"This issue (gay marriage) has become important enough for them that they want people to be conversant in it," he said. "It's a battle being fought on so many fronts."

In November, eight states will have referendums on state constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage: Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin.

Focus on the Family, founded by Christian radio host James Dobson, is seeking church and county coordinators in at least one of those states — Tennessee.

Other states the group is targeting include Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Ohio, according to a news release posted on the group's Web site last month.

Church coordinator duties include "encouraging pastors to speak about Christian citizenship, conducting a voter registration drive, distributing voter guides and get-out-the-vote efforts." County coordinators recruit "key evangelical churches, friends and family and supporting church coordinators with periodic phone calls."

Southern Baptists created the iVoteValues initiative in 2004 to increase evangelical Christian voter registration, education and mobilization, Cureton said. Several groups participated in the movement, including Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council.

Those efforts are continuing this year, with churches holding nonpartisan voter registration drives and pastors encouraged to preach on "values issues," particularly since conservative Christians may be disillusioned this time around, Cureton said.

Harry Knox, director of the religion and faith program at the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay rights group, said religious progressives are beginning to speak out on gay marriage and other issues.

He said, for example, that the Human Rights Campaign recently launched its "Out In Scripture," a free weekly online resource to help clergy in planning their sermons and spiritual discussion groups.

"People on our side of the conversation, who have been silent for a long time, are tired of being silent," Knox said.

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