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Moderates, Liberals Hear Call to Morality Debate

Times Staff Writer

In the face of plans by Christian conservatives to capitalize on President Bush’s reelection, moderate and liberal Christian religious leaders pressed Tuesday for a new national debate to define morality.

Same-sex marriage and abortion emerged as primary issues in the election, but liberals and moderates said Tuesday that they didn’t want the nation to lose sight of broader ethical questions such as poverty, economic and social justice, and the war in Iraq.

“How can you shrink all of our Christian ethics and values down to one or two hot-button issues?” asked the Rev. C. Welton Gaddy of the Interfaith Alliance, a Washington-based liberal group that boasts 150,000 members.

The Rev. Robert W. Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, said the election had opened a public dialogue on the meaning of values: “Do you mean private piety, or values locked into civil unions, abortion or homosexuality? Or do you mean public values, like eliminating poverty and healing the earth and seeking nonviolence and peaceful collaboration?”

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The plea by moderates and liberals to find “common ground” around such issues as poverty comes as the religious right is basking in its part in Bush’s reelection victory over Sen. John F. Kerry, the Democratic nominee.

“The mainline Protestants, who are now the sideline Protestants, and the secularists like John Kerry were the dominant force in 1960s America,” Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, said last week. “Their day is over. Ours has arrived.”

About 22% of all voters said their primary concerns were “moral issues,” eclipsing the economy and the war in Iraq. More than half of Bush’s voters cited moral issues as the chief reason they voted for him, eclipsing other issues, including terrorism and the economy, according to a Times exit poll.

A poll released Tuesday by the Barna Group, which does polling for religious groups, found that born-again Christians voted for Bush over Kerry by a 62%-to-38% margin. The poll also found that although the “born-again” population constituted 38% of Americans, it represented 53% of the votes cast in the election.

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Land said conservative religious believers, including socially conservative Roman Catholics, Jews and evangelical Protestants, expected Bush to deliver on his promises. In addition to a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, they “want strict constructionist judges who will reverse Roe vs. Wade -- make no mistake about it,” Land said, referring to the 1973 Supreme Court decision that affirmed a woman’s right to choose abortion under the constitutional right to privacy.

Liberal leaders on Tuesday said they were concerned that many evangelical Protestants and others had aligned themselves with the Republican Party and George Bush.

“Electing George Bush is fine,” said the Rev. Jim Wallis, a self-described evangelical “religious conservative and social progressive,” and editor of Sojourners Magazine. “Ordaining George Bush is something altogether different.”

Success in finding shared interests will depend largely on whether Bush plays solely to his conservative religious base or embraces a broader view of morality in the public square, they said.

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“Political leaders can appeal to our best angels or our worst angels. Political leaders can set the terms of the debate. If the debate is cast in a very divisive and shrill way, then sometimes the rest of us are put in the mode of responding to the cards you are dealt,” Wallis said.

Despite the bravado among some conservative Christians, moderates and liberals held out hope Tuesday that they could find common ground with them on some issues.

Wallis said he hoped that those Bush voters concerned about the “life issues” of abortion and embryonic stem cell research would be as concerned about war.

“I hope some of them also have a concern for innocent lives now during the siege of Fallouja,” Wallis said. Democrats, liberals and moderates, he said, should look for “more moderate ground” on abortion by backing programs to curb teenage pregnancies and to improve the lives of low-income women.

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Earlier this year, the National Assn. of Evangelicals wrote a paper that warned Christians against aligning with one political party and cautioned against unquestioning nationalism. It called for protections for the poor, the sick and the disabled, as well as environmental protection.

An editorial in this month’s issue of Christianity Today, an evangelical magazine, also cautioned against narrowly defining moral issues. “The dark side of single-issue politics is that it has forced evangelicals to become ever more shrill and ever less imaginative,” the editorial said. “While single-mindedness in following Christ is always wise, single-issue voting may not be.”

“I agree with that,” said Pastor Joe Fuiten of Cedar Park Assembly of God Church in Bothell, Wash., state chairman of Social Conservatives for Bush. But he said conservatives focused on measures against gay marriage because “what was under attack was the issue of marriage.”

To bolster their case, they released a poll Tuesday that found that the war in Iraq was the top moral issue for 42% of voters questioned, more than triple the number who mentioned abortion (13%), and quadruple the number who mentioned same-sex marriage (9%). Of Catholics polled, 31% cited poverty and 30% cited greed as moral issues.

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The poll was conducted by Zogby International. Among its sponsors were the Center for American Progress, a liberal Washington think tank; and Pax Christi USA, a national Catholic peace movement.

Edgar of the National Council of Churches noted that Sen. John Edwards, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, had spoken of two Americas.

“In lots of ways there are two Christianities,” Edgar said. “Over the next years we need to find some bridges over which we can reconnect ourselves and find a way that the Christian message can be more healing and more loving than those two extreme ends.”


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