Baptist group calls religious-themed forums for U.S. Senate candidates 'partisan politics'

Chris Sanders of  Kentucky Baptist Fellowship said the forums appear to favor  McConnell.
Chris Sanders of Kentucky Baptist Fellowship said the forums appear to favor McConnell. Photo provided

FRANKFORT — A group made up of dozens of Baptist churches with thousands of members across Kentucky is opposing efforts by three Kentucky evangelical leaders to conduct forums with U.S. Senate candidates.

The forums "are partisan politics," said Chris Sanders, interim director of the Louisville-based Kentucky Baptist Fellowship.

"Baptists don't do partisan politics from the pulpit," Sanders said.

U.S Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Louisville and his Democratic rival in the Nov. 4 general election, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes of Lexington, were invited this month to participate in three forums hosted by three religious leaders "to explore matters of concern to evangelical Christians."

The first forum was Thursday at Eastwood Baptist Church in Bowling Green. The second is scheduled for Wednesday at Highview Baptist Church's East Campus in Louisville, and the third is slated for Aug. 28 at Somerset Christian School in Somerset.

The forums are to be moderated by Southern Theological Seminary President R. Albert Mohler; Kentucky Baptist Convention executive director Paul Chitwood; and Bob Russell, founding pastor of Louisville's Southeast Christian Church, where McConnell is a member.

McConnell attended the forum in Bowling Green; Grimes instead chose to serve breakfast to people at the Kentucky State Fair in Louisville. She is a member of Cathedral of Christ the King in Lexington.

Her campaign did not respond Monday when asked whether she would attend Wednesday's forum. McConnell has said he would participate in all three.

Kentucky Baptist Fellowship's Sanders said the forums were partisan politics, because "they have the appearance of favoring one politician: McConnell."

"They'll say both candidates have been invited, but they were arranged to benefit McConnell," he said. "They were ready to announce that he would participate in them when they first announced."

Sanders said his group had not relayed its concerns to Mohler, Chitwood or Russell. "We're taking our message to the general public to let them know we oppose what's going on," he said.

Chitwood, head of the Kentucky Baptist Convention, which has about 2,400 member churches and about 750,000 members, said Baptists historically "have always been engaged in the political process."

He mentioned John Leland, a Baptist minister who spoke out against slavery and was a figure in the struggle for religious liberty in the United States, and Martin Luther King Jr., who helped ensure civil rights in this country.

"These forums are informational, not partisan," Chitwood said. "Both major party candidates have been invited so that evangelical voters can get an unfiltered look at where they stand on issues of importance to the faith community."

Chitwood said Southern Baptists in Kentucky covered the political spectrum.

"They're Democrats, Republicans, independents and more," he said. "For us to show even a hint of partisanship would be a disservice. But we feel a sense of responsibility to help provide the information Southern Baptists need to make informed decisions when they go to the polls in this very important race."

Sanders said the Kentucky Baptist Fellowship had a strong relationship with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Formed in 1991, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship withdrew from the Southern Baptist Convention over philosophical and theological differences, such as the SBC's prohibition on women serving as pastors.

The fellowship, Sanders said, emphasizes missions and dismissing the identity that Baptists are exclusive and politically partisan.

Sanders, who has a master of divinity degree from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, is a former executive assistant for the United Food and Commercial Workers union in Louisville. It usually endorsed Democratic candidates. He is a lawyer who also is a deacon and musician at Ridgewood Baptist Church in Louisville.

Neither McConnell's nor Grimes' campaign had any comment about Sanders' remarks.

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