Is it okay for a candidate for president of the SBC to campaign for office? If so, what is allowed and what is not?
Let’s agree to something from the outset. We are Baptists, so autonomy is going to make it impossible to set universal rules. Each candidate, each entity, each entity head is going to have to set boundaries according to the dictates of conscience. But autonomy does not preclude us from attempting to establish some parameters and coming to some kind of agreement as to what is acceptable and what is not.
- There was a time, during the CR, when entity leaders of the SBC got fairly heavily involved in campaigning – generally for the moderates against the conservatives. It was an odd time. Decrying politics, they actively engaged in partisan politics.
- Entity leaders have often given endorsements, especially since the advent of social media.
- During the CR, the Pastors’ Conference was often a two-day campaign event for the conservative movement. Every speaker proclaimed the importance of inerrancy, some would blatantly name the chosen conservative candidate, and having the candidate speak on Monday night before the Tuesday vote was not at all unusual. I do not know if H.B. Charles had any political motive in his selection, but I do understand that JD is a speaker this year.
- The moderates (again, all-the-while denouncing the evils of conservative campaigning) met us outside the convention hall with brochures about Dan Vestal and why he should be elected. I don’t remember the year but I do remember thinking that was a bit unusual.
But recent actions have brought the issue of electioneering in the SBC back into the discussion.
- Dr. John Yeats of the Missouri Baptist Convention has endorsed and publicly campaigned for Dr. Ken Hemphill, using editorials in the Missouri Pathway and endorsing him in letters. There are some among his constituency who are very unhappy about his bold advocacy of Dr. Hemphill.
- Dr. David Hankins has unapologetically endorsed and actively campaigned for Hemphill. While he denies the accusations that CP and/or LBC funds have been used to aid in this advocacy, he does not back down from his endorsement or his intent to work to see Hemphill elected. His staff put together a website for the candidate and Hemphill is involved in various campaign events around the state. Dr. Hankins openly admits to campaigning for the election of Dr. Hemphill, denies using CP or LBC funds to do it, claims that those who are involved are volunteers, and feels his actions are fully justified.
- At this point, I am unaware of any national entity heads or state convention executives who are actively campaigning for J.D. Greear. Several gave endorsements of his character and abilities but I am not aware of any who are involved in active electioneering.
What is “campaigning” anyway?
If I say, “I am going to vote for J.D. Greear” – am I campaigning? Or do I have to do something more like what Dr. Yeats or Dr. Hankins are doing – active promotion of one candidate over another? What is that line? I am quite sure I will not solve the problem with this post. My goal is much less robust – I’d just like to get the discussion started in a more theoretical and less personal basis. Rather than discussing the ethics of a particular executive’s actions, let’s ask what OUGHT to be.
1. Social Media is only making this tougher.
Twitter, Facebook, blogs, they all make campaigning easier and drawing the line tougher. I – all by my old fogey self – used Squarespace and put together a couple of website/blog sites. They weren’t fancy (or good, I suppose) but I did it. If I did, just about anyone can. Dr. Hemphill had the help and support of the staff of the LBC, but just about anyone can put together a website or a blog. Putting together a Facebook page, forwarding tweets – advocacy is pretty easy these days!
Campaigning is easier than it ever was, and cheaper.
2. We need to stop pretending about the SBC’s political nature.
There are actually people who will get upset if you say that the SBC is a political organization, as if that is somehow antithetical to being spiritual. But we get together and have meetings where we make motions and vote and hold elections. That, my friend, is called politics. Hopefully, those politics can be done by the fruit of the Spirit not the works of the flesh, but it’s still politics.
3. And let’s stop pretending that candidates don’t seek office.
I have heard it often – “The man doesn’t seek the office, the office seeks the man.” That sounds great, doesn’t it? So spiritual. A reluctant candidate who says no about 37 times but is finally prevailed upon by friends who twist his arm into agreeing to run. The office seeks the man. I am sure it even happens that way once in a while. But there are also a lot of times when the man seeks the office. Is that so wrong? Isn’t that what is known as a calling? Why should we demand that the president of the SBC be someone who didn’t want to be president, who fought against the idea? Shouldn’t it be someone (sorry, cessationists!) who sensed a call of God to that office and a burden for what he could do there?
I don’t claim to know everything about everything in the SBC, but I do know that “the office seeks the man” is mythology as often as it is reality.
4. Limited campaigning can focus elections on ideas, not on personalities.
Let’s pretend that Brent Hobbs and I both decide to run for President of the SBC in 2024. Why should you vote for me? Because I am so much better looking than Brent? Because you heard me preach somewhere and I’m better than him? Because of my winning, engaging personality? All of those, in a race against Brent, would be adequate reasons, of course.
But what if I put up a website that outlined my platform in detail and Brent put up a similar website. If elected, I will do A, B, and C. Brent agrees with me on A and C, but he wants to do D instead of B. So, if we campaign and spell out our platforms in detail, then people can decide whether they like Brent’s platform or mine (of course, looks are always going to be a factor when I run against Brent).
When we completely restrict and eliminate all campaigning, the election tends to be about personalities and celebrities more than about ideas and about content. Limited campaigning would improve elections.
5. Righteousness and decency limit the scope of campaigning, not rules.
In a convention such as ours, there can be no rules, but we can and should have some guidelines that are generally accepted. They might vary from person to person, but we ought to be limited by the Lordship of Christ and a general standard of propriety, by the fruit of the Spirit. The politics of personal destruction we see in the secular world has no place among believers.
6. The tithes and offerings of God’s people are verboten.
I am all-in on the J.D. Greear candidacy, but if I heard that one of our entity heads was using his office to campaign for my candidate, you would hear me squawk. If he endorses him on twitter – no big deal. Dr. Moore can endorse whomever he wants. The ERLC should be neutral. I use them as an example – not because they’ve done anything to be called out over. what Dr. Yeats and especially Dr. Hankins are doing makes me nervous, but since I’m an Iowa Baptist it isn’t my business. Theoretically, though, I think that the Executive Board should give their imprimatur on those actions before they engage in active campaigning.
The tithes and offerings of God’s people pay for the state conventions and the national entities. They belong to God and they are beholden to the people who support them. They are not the personal fiefdoms of the executives or the presidents. Those men should be allowed to give personal endorsements but the resources of the organization should only be used if the organization has approved that use.
7. Public campaigning is not shameful unless it is done shamefully.
There is no shame in publicly advocating for a candidate as long as you do it in a respectful and godly way. More than that, there is no shame in a candidate explaining why he wants the office. This idea that a candidate for SBC President has to pretend he doesn’t really want the office is plain old stupid. I’d love to hear J.D. Greear tell me exactly why he’d like to be SBC President. Then Dr. Hemphill could tell me the same. Don’t be ashamed to say, “Here’s why I am running. Here’s what I want to do. Here’s why I’d like to be president.” If you don’t want to be president, there’s a simple solution. Don’t run!
- Every Baptist, including our leaders, should have the right to endorse a candidate personally, but keep organizations, entities, schools, and state conventions out of the political campaign business.
- Keep Cooperative Program dollars neutral at all times.
- Presidential candidates ought to campaign on their platform. Let’s elect someone’s ideas, not their celebrity or their personality.
- Campaigning ought to be positive. The politics of personal destruction has no place among Baptists. It is always better to tell people why a candidate is good than why another is bad.
- Our standard for political behavior is the Bible, not the American political world. (Duh!)
- Public campaigning is less open to abuse than private. If we encourage spiritually acceptable public campaigning maybe some of the backroom nonsense will go away. Let the sun shine in.
- Candidates who campaign in unethical ways are not likely to lead ethically. If a man is willing to gain office through deceit, through slander, or through underhanded means, it is a mark against his character that ought to be taken seriously.
I give these ideas as proposals, not as a finished product. I hope there will be a lively discussion. I reserve the right to change my mind or to steal your good ideas and edit them into this post!
What say you about campaigning in the SBC?
NOTE: we’ve said plenty about the issues in LBC, and I did reference them here, but this is a theoretical post. Please, let’s not use this as another place to fight the fights we’ve fought elsewhere. Let’s divorce ourselves from current controversies and ask, what OUGHT the rules to be?