Pastors need to use hot-button issues like same-sex marriage to get out the vote among evangelical Christians, a Republican National Committee-sponsored lecturer told more than 100 ministers gathered in Eugene, Ore. David Barton, the second-highest ranking GOP official in President Bush's home state of Texas, also urged the pastors at the Tuesday lunchtime event to become more politically active and push their parishioners to register to vote, according to pastors who attended the event. Barton, of Ennis, Tex., heads a national group called WallBuilders, dedicated to restoring "the constitutional, moral, and religious foundation on which America was built." Critics say he's encroaching on the separation between church and state and risking churches' tax-exempt status in the process.
About a half-dozen protesters picketed his talk at Willamette Christian Center, which was closed to the media. Barton said a majority of evangelical Christians didn't vote in 2000. "We really do need people of faith to be involved in the civil arena, to vote and to care about the issues," he said. "They don't need to sit home and do nothing." During the address, Barton said, he recounted the Christian beliefs of the
nation's Founding Fathers and tried to clarify what pastors can and can't do in the political arena. According to IRS guidelines, churches and other tax-exempt religious organizations cannot endorse individual candidates, but their pastors can preach on issues. Joan Pierson, a retired Presbyterian minister from Eugene, said Barton "talked a lot about the marriage stuff as an issue in Oregon that can help get out the vote." Barton also discussed issues such as school prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance, saying that congressional votes on such matters have been intensely partisan, Pierson said. She noted that Barton made no mention of Bush or Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry and said the word "Iraq" only once.
Protesters at the event included 75-year-old Lois Clinock of Eugene, who held a sign reading "Who would Jesus bomb?" "It's not right to go to churches to ask for votes," Clinock said. "The
Constitution is premised on separation of church and state, and it's not separate when you ask a church for votes." America Coming Together of Oregon, a left-leaning voter-registration group, also criticized Barton's appearance as part of a Bush-Cheney evangelical outreach campaign that has already landed churches in other states in hot water. But Steve Buss, an associate pastor at Willamette Christian, said the gathering would not jeopardize the church's tax-exempt status.