SOUTHERN BAPTIST CONVENTION BUSH
Mark Humphrey  /  AP
President Bush addresses the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting via satellite on Tuesday, praising membersfor their strong family values.
By M. Alex Johnson Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 6/21/2005 2:01:35 PM ET 2005-06-21T18:01:35

Reviving a major plank of his re-election campaign, President Bush called for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage Tuesday.

The president’s address to the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention — the fourth year in a row he has spoken to the conservative evangelical gathering — was crafted to rally the social religious conservatives who make up a crucial part of Bush’s governing coalition. He restated his commitment to issues dear to conservatives’ hearts, notably his opposition to same-sex marriage, abortion and research on human embryonic stem cells — a stance he calls the “culture of life.”

“We will continue to build a culture of life in America, and America will be better off for it,” Bush said by satellite hookup from the White House.

Bush’s remarks were similar to those he made last year, when he said he would work to uphold marriage as he sought to solidify his religious conservative base ahead of the November election. He thanked the 11,077 “messengers” who made the trek to Nashville this year for defending “the values that carry a moral society, for ... defending the family and the sacred institution of marriage.”

But the message has extra resonance this year. The president’s ban on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research is being challenged in Congress, even by some in his own Republican Party, and the likelihood of Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s imminent retirement promises a free-swinging ideological battle in the Senate.

Carefully worded appeal
In a nod to polling data that suggest Americans strongly support embryonic stem cell research, Bush sought to focus the debate on theoretical pitfalls should such science be perfected. Not once did he use the words “stem cell” or “embryos.”

Instead, the president cast his position as standing in the way of “cloning” — which some scientists say could be a realistic result of the research — and “the creation of life only to destroy it.”

The Southern Baptist Convention strongly condemns homosexuality, and the president’s remarks were greeted with sustained applause. Gay rights activists were organizing a rally for Wednesday morning at the Nashville Public Library to protest the convention's preaching on gays and lesbians.

Bush’s speech was also in keeping with the tone of urgency suffusing the conference, where the Rev. Bobby Welch, president of the convention, has challenged church leaders to renew their commitment to social engagement and evangelism, which Welch said was a critical test of the church’s credibility.

Bush echoed that call, sounding themes in a recent declaration by the National Association of Evangelicals urging more attention to poverty, homelessness and economic disruption.

“We must help the poor, the sick and those who hurt,” he said.

Although a sizable minority of evangelical Christians — estimated at 20 percent to 40 percent — say they are politically moderate or Democratic, the SBC has been led by socially conservative leaders since they engineered a takeover of the nation’s largest non-Catholic denomination in 1979. At one point during a floor debate Tuesday, Welch had to remind messengers to remain civil.

Schools resolution unlikely
The conservatives’ primary issues have been gay and lesbian rights and what they see as moral decay in the public schools, a topic that has again created controversy at the convention’s annual gathering.

But the convention was unlikely to consider resolutions calling on Southern Baptists to withdraw their children from public schools. The convention’s resolutions committee was considering two non-binding resolutions urging parents to investigate whether their local school promoted homosexuality and to pull their children out of classes if it did, but the panel killed a similar resolution last year, and Welch told MSNBC.com last week that he thought Christians should remain in public schools to promote change from within.

Even so, there was a strong sense that “the modern educational system in America is a mess,” as the Rev. Jerry Vines of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla., a leading social conservative figure in Southern Baptist circles, said in an address at the convention’s Pastors Conference.

“In modern education in America, we have dethroned God, and we have deified man,” Vines said. “You cannot satisfy the human soul with mere education.”

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