By Bob Allen
The interim head of a state Cooperative Baptist Fellowship accused three evangelical leaders of partisan politics for sponsoring candidate forums in a closely watched U.S. Senate race in Kentucky.
Chris Sanders, named this month as interim coordinator of the Kentucky Baptist Fellowship, posted on Facebook that the purpose of a series of “issues forums” moderated by Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Albert Mohler, Kentucky Baptist Convention Executive Director Paul Chitwood and retired Southeast Christian Church Pastor Bob Russell is to re-elect Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell.
“That’s partisan, and it’s wrong,” said Sanders, an attorney who entered law school after graduating with a master of divinity degree from Southern Seminary in 1985.
“Baptists don’t do partisan politics from the pulpit,” Sanders said. “It’s against our belief in separation of church and state — a free church in a free state.”
The three evangelical leaders announced Aug. 4 that both McConnell — the longest serving U.S. senator in Kentucky history who is seeking a sixth term at age 73 — and Democratic challenger and Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes were invited to three gatherings across the state to “explore matters of concern to evangelical Christians.”
McConnell, a former Southern Baptist who now attends Southeast Christian Church, showed up at the first gathering Aug. 14 at Eastwood Baptist Church in Bowling Green, discussing issues such as religious liberty, abortion, immigration and the persecution of Christian minorities in Syria and Iraq.
Grimes, a member of Cathedral of Christ the King in Lexington, opted for another campaign appearance at the Kentucky State Fair in Louisville. A campaign spokesperson said Grimes’ “faith is deeply important to her daily life and grounds her work to serve the greater good.”
A second SBTS/KBC forum is scheduled Wednesday, Aug. 20, at Highview Baptist Church in Louisville. The third and final event is set for Aug. 28 at a Christian school in Somerset.
Sanders told the Lexington Herald-Leader that while both candidates were invited, the gatherings were arranged to benefit McConnell, noting the sponsors were ready to announce that he would participate before they were formally announced.
Several groups have offered to serve as hosts for a debate between McConnell and Grimes in one of the closest and most-watched races of the 2014 election.
On Wednesday Kentucky Educational Television CEO Shae Hopkins announced that McConnell had accepted an invitation to debate Grimes Oct. 13 on the program Kentucky Tonight. “KET is proud to be trusted by the candidates and Kentucky’s voters to provide a fair and independent platform in this pivotal U.S. Senate race,” Hopkins said in a press release.
Sanders, former general counsel at the United Food and Commercial Workers International Local 227 and secretary-treasurer at Kentucky AFL-CIO, was named interim leader of the Kentucky Fellowship pending a search for a permanent replacement for John Lepper, the founding KBF director who served 16 years before retiring June 30.