A Republican senator scheduled to speak at next year’s New Baptist Covenant Celebration in Atlanta told a community newspaper in Iowa that positioning the party as the “Christian” choice has been detrimental to the GOP.

“That does turn some people off,” Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said in an interview with the Sioux County Index-Reporter. Grassley said he prefers to describe the party in a different way.

“I believe in the big-tent approach,” he said. “We ought to be open to anybody who shares our conservative economic, political and social views.”

Asked if ethical scandals like Idaho Sen. Larry Craig’s arrest for disorderly conduct in an airport men’s room diminish the GOP’s “Christian” identity, Grassley sought to distinguish between the two.

“I believe that a person can vote for whatever reason he wants to, and I think that on certain issues, it’s better to vote the Republican Party,” he said. “But I believe that you can make those arguments without using the religious point of view.”

For example, he said, a completely “secularist” argument can be made against abortion on constitutional grounds–that due-process and equal-protection-under-the-law guarantees in the 14th Amendment apply to life in the womb.

Grassley is one of two sitting U.S. senators scheduled to speak at the Jan. 30-Feb. 1 New Baptist Covenant Celebration at the Georgia World Congress Center. The other is Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C.

The meeting was announced in January at a press conference featuring former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, flanked by representatives of more than 30 Baptist organizations involved in planning. Clinton and Carter are also scheduled speakers for the celebration.

A third high-profile Republican, presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, withdrew from his invitation to speak at the gathering to protest comments attributed to Carter that were critical of President Bush. The former Arkansas governor said he had only “tentatively” agreed to participate in the convocation with the understanding it wasn’t political. In pulling out of the commitment Huckabee said the program “does seem to tilt left.”

Grassley, ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, is a member of Prairie Lakes Church in Cedar Falls, Iowa, an 1,800-member congregation affiliated with the Baptist General Conference.

Grassley told Forbes magazine that he gives at least 10 percent of his income to charity, because it is what his faith requires. About three fourths of that, he said, goes either to Prairie Lakes Church or other churches close to his family. He said he decided years ago to give the other 25 percent to small charities like the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.

Grassley is also identified as belonging to a secretive society called “The Family” or “The Fellowship” that organizes Bible study groups on Capitol Hill. The group is best known for The Cedars, its private mansion headquarters that overlooks the Potomac River, and the National Prayer Breakfast, its only publicized event, which it established in 1953.

The Fellowship Foundation is headed by Douglas Coe, included by Time among the 25 most influential evangelicals in America. Coe is nicknamed the “stealth Billy Graham” for his backstage role in major events including the 1976 Camp David accords.

Coe’s under-the-radar approach has attracted the interest of investigative journalists. The most recent, Mother Jones, focused on involvement in the group by another longtime member, Sen. Hillary Clinton.

Other scheduled speakers at the New Baptist Covenant Celebration include:

Charles D. Adams, pastor of Hartford Baptist Church in Detroit for 36 years and former president of the Detroit Branch of the NAACP, the largest branch in the country.

William J. Shaw, pastor of White Rock Baptist Church in Philadelphia and president of the National Baptist Convention USA Inc.

–Tony Campolo, professor emeritus at Eastern University, author of 30 books and founder of the Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education.

–Joel Gregory, professor of preaching at Baylor’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary and author of Too Great a Temptation, chronicling his rise and fall as co-pastor of the 29,000-member First Baptist Church in Dallas.

–Julie Pennington-Russell, pastor of First Baptist Church in Decatur, Ga.

–Marian Wright-Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund.

–Veteran TV journalist Bill Moyers.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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