When I saw the front page headline on Friday's edition of The Dallas Morning News ("Pastors' voter drive has Perry's blessing"), I had a fairly good idea what the article beneath it contained.
The report described a well-organized network of Evangelical pastors with a goal of registering at least 300,000 new "values voters" before November 2005. The coalition of church leaders calls itself the "Texas Restoration Project."
Of course, the group bills itself and its efforts as non-partisan. Right.
In May around 500 pastors associated with the project met with Governor Rick Perry in Austin. The closed-door meeting gave the Governor an opportunity to encourage the ministers in their work of involving their congregations in the political process. All expenses to the two-day event that included the spouses of many of the pastors (around 800 persons) were paid for with private, but Republican-related funds.
In addition to registering new lay persons to vote, the "Texas Restoration Project" intends to sign up what it calls 1,000 "Patriot Pastors" to assist in the effort, as well as in pushing the group's political and social agenda. Similar efforts have been underway in other states. The project will convene six "Pastor Policy Briefings" before the fall elections.
"The mission is the mobilization of pastors and pews as a way to restore Texas and America to our Judeo-Christian heritage," said spokesman and network organizer David Lane.
How does the group define a "values voter"?
No surprise here. The issues are clear and few: abortion, homosexuality/gay marriage and religious expression in the public square.
Two things bother me about all of this.
First, political leaders exploit this narrow list of highly charged issues to stir the emotions of a large segment of the population leaving no space for rational conversation and no option about how to vote or where to line up politically.
Second, groups like the "Texas Restoration Project" leave the impression that their issues of concern are the only issues allowed in what should be a lively discussion about the true nature of Christian values.
One of the tragic results of this narrow, emotional and limiting worldview is that the poor of our nation and the world suffer greatly.
If abortion, homosexuality and the right to pray in public schools occupy the only high ground, that fairly well excludes consideration of other human issues as matters worthy of inclusion in any values discussion. Then, if one party focuses most of its attention there, the matter is basically closed, don't you think?
How different the words of the Bible sound.
The "values" teaching found there would surprise some folks. As an ex-pastor, I can't much blame the people who sit in the pews. Many ministers, especially those of the fundamentalist bent, don't spend much time on the more prevalent themes I have in mind.
If you are interested in going deeper, find an exhaustive concordance (on-line or in print) and run searches on words like "poor," "poverty," "oppression," "sick," "greed," "justice," "misery," "mercy," "compassion" and "hungry."
Or, sit down and read through the Gospel of Luke. Watch Jesus. Listen to him. Note his focus. What would you say were his key values?
My study of the Bible over the past thirty-something years leads me to believe that eliminating poverty and discrimination, providing adequate housing and health care, establishing justice in national life, educating all of our children regardless of class status, insuring that people who work hard receive all that they need to make a life for themselves and their families, working tirelessly for peace and reconciliation among peoples and wiping out hunger are all extremely important and fundamental "values issues."
And, let me hasten to add, these values are rooted in my understanding of faith and faithfulness.
Today though, the way things are currently framed for us, hard choices have to be made.
In Texas the majority of policy makers are pushing forward with the determined destruction of every public effort to bring assistance, relief, hope and sustained opportunity to the poor. The state budget is balanced every two years on the backs of those at the bottom. The policies of the current national political leadership and that of many other states basically reflect the same narrow "values system."
True "values voters" will recognize that the list of issues to consider when going to the polls is neither short or narrow.
No voter whose values are shaped by the Bible will be able to forget the poor when marking a ballot.
Bonus "values" question: Who can tell us why Sodom was destroyed?
Answer: "This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy." (Ezekiel 16:49)