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Evangelical voters key to race for White House

By John W. Kennedy

Joe Fuiten has been busier than usual this fall. In addition to his duties as senior pastor of Cedar Park Assembly of God in Bothell, Wash., Fuiten — as head of the lobbying group Washington Evangelicals for Responsible Government — has been working to register 60,000 voters in 3,000 churches across the state.

Today, two days before the election, Fuiten is asking pastors to offer special prayers during services to emphasize the importance of voting. His chief aim is to ensure that those new voters show up at the polls on Tuesday.

Fuiten, whose Seattle-area churches and ministries draw 5,000 participants in a typical week, believes Christians hold the key to influencing society. According to Fuiten, recent judicial decisions expanding homosexual rights are the end result of Christians failing to vote.

“God has called us to redeem the culture, not to let our culture go to hell,” Fuiten says. “God created three institutions: the family, the church and government. Our task is to make sure all three are under the jurisdiction of God, and the only way to do that is to get people involved in the political process.”

Evangelicals represent around one-quarter of the electorate, yet only 54 percent of eligible evangelicals voted in 2000 (compared to 51 percent of all voters), according to John C. Green, director of the Roy C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron. Around 5 million fewer evangelicals voted in 2000 than in 1996 — a year that had the lowest turnout of any presidential election since 1924.

According to experts, Christians have a variety of reasons for not voting: they live in a state where they don’t feel their vote would make a difference in the electoral count; they don’t like any of the candidates; they don’t see how politics is relevant to their lives; they believe politics is worldly and would rather stick to saving souls.

“Voting is a part of citizenship,” counters Richard Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs of the National Association of Evangelicals in Washington, D.C. “To not vote is a violation of our biblical mandate.”

This year, there has been an unprecedented effort by political parties to mobilize segments of Americans to register, including labor unions, college students and gun owners. Also various nonpolitical entities — from MTV to the American Tract Society — have sponsored voter registration efforts.

But registering doesn’t necessarily translate into votes on November 2.

“While it’s easier to register than ever before, people may not be motivated to stand in line to cast a ballot,” Green cautions.

Nevertheless, Green expects a larger evangelical turnout this year compared to four years ago, both because of voter registration drives and because of homosexual marriage issues on several state ballots.

The highest presidential election turnout in history — 62.8 percent — occurred in 1960. Voter participation has been slowly but steadily declining since then, with a rise only in 1992 when Ross Perot ran as a third-party candidate.

Presidential candidates continue to court Christian voters. Senator John Kerry’s campaign has marketed “Christians for Kerry” bumper stickers and T-shirts. President George W. Bush’s campaign sought church directories from supporters in Southern Baptist and Catholic churches in Pennsylvania.

“Until recently, the level of religiosity — how often [voters] attend church, how seriously they take the Bible — didn’t matter politically,” Green says.

A June Gallup poll found that among those Americans who attend church weekly, 60 percent plan to vote for Bush and 38 percent for Kerry. The numbers are reversed for those who never attend church.

“It’s a real trend because of the social issues of gay rights, abortion, and marriage,” Green says.

Cizik maintains, however, that neither party is an entire reflection of a biblical set of principles.

The NAE released “For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility” earlier this month.

“Never before has God given American evangelicals such an awesome opportunity to shape public policy in ways that could improve the well-being of the entire world,” the document declares. “Disengagement is not an option.”

The declaration warns evangelicals not to equate the Christian faith with partisan politics.

Another potential danger, some say, is if Christians are guided more by party platforms than the Bible.

John A. Wilson, pastor of West County Assembly of God in Chesterfield, Mo., a 600-member congregation in suburban St. Louis, says he is careful to be nonpartisan. “Our ministry is the gospel,” he says. “We don’t want to go down the road of politics. That won’t save anybody.”

Still, Wilson believes only the Christian church can be the conscience of America.

“We are to speak out loudly on moral issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage and gambling,” Wilson says.

Five years ago, Wilson created a “moral action team” at the church, which keeps congregants aware of cultural issues from stem cell research to partial-birth abortion. Team members register voters at church and drive members to the polls.

Wilson has been praying for the president weekly in church services since 1990, taking to heart the apostle Paul’s exhortation to offer petitions to the Lord for all in authority. “It’s our responsibility to pray so they will make godly decisions,” Wilson says.

Under Internal Revenue guidelines, pastors, congregations and denominations are allowed to declare positions on issues. For instance, before the Missouri primary in August the Assemblies of God sponsored full-page newspaper advertisements opposing gambling expansion and favoring a state amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman.

But a church cannot oppose or endorse a particular candidate because that is considered campaigning, according to Richard R. Hammar, legal counsel for the Assemblies of God in Springfield, Mo. To be exempt from federal income taxation, a church cannot participate in political campaigning. Pastors also are prohibited from making partisan comments in official church publications or at church functions, says Hammar, who is author of Church & Clergy Tax Guide, a comprehensive book used by ministers across the denominational spectrum.

Voter guides distributed by a church must include all candidates for the office and provide a neutral description of issues.

Only one church — a New York congregation that opposed Bill Clinton’s candidacy in newspaper ads in 1992 — has ever lost its tax-exempt status due to political involvement.

“The consequences of a church losing its tax exemption would be disastrous, for both the church and its members,” Hammar told PE Report.

While Fuiten cannot endorse candidates from the pulpit, a 2002 IRS ruling clarified that pastors can be involved in campaigns as individuals rather than church representatives without jeopardizing the congregation’s tax-exempt status.

Fuiten has a privately financed Web site in which he makes voting recommendations. The site, which lists Fuiten’s pastoral title as a means of identification, makes it clear that the church itself isn’t endorsing President Bush, who is pictured in prayer with his Cabinet.

Although wary of becoming too entwined in campaigns, Fuiten believes politics is an important avenue to solving spiritual problems. “Obviously we are not saved by politics, but it can be an important predecessor to salvation,” Fuiten says. “Asking if we want to emphasize politics or religion is like asking what is the most important leg of a three-legged stool. If you have all evangelism and no culture you have a serious problem.”

Many pastors don’t understand that if the definition of marriage is changed it will drastically affect society, Fuiten says. “When marriage goes, the family goes and our job gets twice as hard,” he says. “We end up trying to pick up the pieces of these broken lives.”

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