By Bob Allen
Two Southern Baptist leaders in Kentucky and a retired megachurch pastor have joined more than a dozen other groups vying for the venue of a highly anticipated debate between U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his Democratic challenger in one of the closest and most-watched election races of the year.
Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; Paul Chitwood, executive director of the Kentucky Baptist Convention; and Bob Russell, retired senior pastor of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, say McConnell, 72, the longest serving U.S. senator in Kentucky history, who is seeking a sixth term in 2014, has accepted their invitation to speak at three “issues forums” in evangelical settings across the state.
They say McConnell’s opponent, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, is reviewing her invitation to join them at a series of meetings Aug. 14 at Eastwood Baptist Church in Bowling Green, Aug. 20 at Highview Baptist Church in Louisville and Aug. 28 at a Christian school in Somerset.
“The purpose of these forums will be to consider the urgent issues now presented to evangelical Christians in American society and in the engagement with our culture,” Mohler said in a press release.
Mohler predicted that Kentucky’s 2014 Senate race will help determine how issues such as family, marriage, the sanctity of life and religious liberty will be addressed in national politics.
“We are pleased that Senator McConnell has accepted this invitation and we are hopeful that Secretary Grimes will also take advantage of this opportunity and accept our invitation to discuss these issues with Kentucky’s evangelical leaders,” Mohler said.
Chitwood said Kentucky’s 1 million Southern Baptists need to know where the candidates stand on faith issues.
“We are diverse in our political affiliations but stand united in our commitment to religious liberty and issues where the Bible’s teachings are clear,” Chitwood said.
With fewer than 100 days left before the Nov. 4 election, McConnell led his 35-year-old challenger by 2 percentage points in a poll sponsored by the Herald-Leader and WKYT-TV in Lexington and The Courier-Journal and WHAS-TV in Louisville.
McConnell offered to debate Grimes shortly after fending off a Tea Party challenger in the Republican primary in May. He proposed a series of Lincoln-Douglas style debates in which the two would ask questions of each other, and a moderator would only keep time. McConnell wants the debate to be held in a studio with no audience and with no questioners.
Grimes says she wants to debate the incumbent, but under different terms. She wants public involvement with a live audience and with others having an opportunity to ask questions. A number of political groups have offered to sponsor the debate, but Grimes says the hosts must have no ideological bent toward either candidate.
McConnell is a member of Southeast Christian Church. He is a former longtime member of Crescent Hill Baptist Church, once regarded as the unofficial mother church of nearby Southern Seminary but now estranged from the Southern Baptist Convention over theology and denominational politics.
Russell, longtime pastor of Southeast Christian Church, said today’s political issues frequently overlap with biblical principles.
“The sanctity of life, the sacredness of marriage, the freedom to evangelize, racial equality, the persecution of Christians in foreign countries, caring for the poor, justice in the courtroom, defining a just war and the proper treatment of immigrants aren’t just political issues,” Russell said. “They are first and foremost biblical issues.”
“We are confident the upcoming forums will provide an excellent opportunity for Kentucky voters to be informed about where the candidates stand on these and other critical issues,” Russell added.
Grimes is a member of the Cathedral of Christ the King, a Roman Catholic parish in Lexington.
Elected Secretary of State in 2011, Grimes is running on a platform of change. At a recent high-profile political event attended by both candidates, she criticized her opponent as stuck in the past, claiming that the Republican senator doesn’t care about working people, seniors, women, students, unions and coal miners.
McConnell described Grimes as a tool of national Democrats, saying that President Obama needs to keep a Democratic majority in the Senate in order to remain in power.