Jonathan Merritt’s recent RNS article, “Southern Baptists Cozy Up to GOP after Pulling Back” entirely misunderstands, I think, the nature of what happened with the Ben Carson matter earlier this year and with the SEND North America conference. At least, as someone who had some involvement in the former matter, I can say that Merritt’s analysis misses the mark on what I was trying to do. This wasn’t about political parties.
Correcting what one person has written is probably not a good use of anyone’s time, even if that one person is a journalist with a national audience. But Merritt is not alone. His particular misunderstanding is one that I think I perceived in a good bit of the reaction back in the Spring. I have to take seriously the possibility that I did not communicate as well (or as completely) as I should have communicated back then. That possibility motivates me to try, try again.
My motivation when I authored “A Plea at the Premiere of Presidential Politicking” was not a “pulling back” from the GOP. I don’t think the interviews slated for SEND with Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio amount to any sort of a “cozying up” with the GOP. Rather, I was writing about the relationship between our faith and politics
The relationship between faith and politics has long been an interest of mine. In fact, I named my personal blog “Praisegod Barebones” precisely because Barebones, the historical figure, was an interesting preacher-politician in seventeenth-century England. From time to time I have written on the subject matter of church-state issues. Having a good understanding of the relationship between faith and politics is, in my estimation, an important virtue.
The Southern Baptist Convention and the Political Parties
Along the way to developing that understanding of the relationship between faith and politics, one must discover that there is a difference between our relationship with politics on the one hand and our relationship with political parties on the other hand. For too much of our history, instead of a philosophy of faith and politics, Southern Baptists had a philosophy of faith and political parties.
From 1845 to 1979—a full hundred thirty-four years—the Southern Baptist Convention was joined at the hip with the Democratic Party. The Democrats were the party of slavery and white supremacy. When you read about Southern Baptist failures in race relations, every leader responsible for those problems was a Democrat.
Consider the period around the turn of the twentieth century. From 1889 to 1898, the nine-term president of the Southern Baptist Convention was Jonathan Haralson, Sr., a Democrat Associate Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court and a former official of the Confederate States of America. Haralson yielded his gavel in 1899 to William J. Northen, Democrat Governor of the State of Georgia. Northen served three years, then passed the gavel to James P. Eagle, Democrat Governor of the State of Arkansas, who served three terms from 1902 until his death in 1905. Next followed Edwin Stephens, a newspaper magnate from Missouri who, although he was not an elected politician, was prominent enough in state politics to gain an appointment as chair of the commission that designed and constructed the Capitol of the State of Missouri. Next came Joshua Levering, national presidential candidate for the Prohibition Party in 1896 (OK, so this politician was not a Democrat, although prohibition enjoyed widespread support among Democrats, so much so that Al Smith could not mobilize enough Democrat support to win the White House in 1928). Not until the 1911 election of E. C. Dargan did a preacher return to the presidential rostrum of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Aside: For those who advocate for more lay-officers in the Southern Baptist Convention, although I am not opposed to that concept at all, it is my knowledge of this epoch of our history that makes me aware of how this potentially-good thing could also go very bad.
This epoch gave us Jim Crow (Governor James Philip Eagle signed the “Separate Coach Law” inaugurating Jim Crow in Arkansas), and Southern Baptists, in lockstep as they were with the Democrats, went right along with it. The startling pre-Conservative-Resurgence embrace of abortion by Southern Baptists can also be traced back to allegiance to the Democratic Party.
If Southern Baptists have been identified with the GOP, it is a recent development and not nearly long tenured enough to have accomplished any sort of historical balance.
But the sad tale of moral depravity that Democrats foisted upon the Southern Baptist Convention ought not to drive us into a rebound monogamous relationship with Republicans. The lesson to be learned is not that we had the wrong partner, but that we had the wrong approach. The church already has a Bridegroom, and monogamy with any political party is, ipso facto, adultery. Avoiding that temptation is made especially difficult and we therefore have to be particularly diligent because of the fact that cooperation with the Democrats is untenable and increasingly unconscionable. The political party that will embrace the carving up of innocent babies for the sale of their organs is not merely politically wrong; it is morally culpable at the most egregious levels. Therefore, we face the difficult test of avoiding blind allegiance to the Republicans even while they know full well that we have nowhere else to go (apart from third-party movements or disengagement). It is a test that I believe we can win, but we will not accidentally win it. We will only win it if we determine to do so and work hard at it.
The Southern Baptist Convention and Politics
Withdrawing from politics, however, is the wrong solution to this sad history. To withdraw from politics is to abandon the pursuit of justice. Furthermore, so long as Southern Baptists will go to the polls, Southern Baptists will be involved in politics. To think that such a solemn responsibility that affects the lives of so many people is a duty about which Christian discipleship has nothing to say is inconceivable.
Instead, Southern Baptists ought to approach politics in such a way as to minimize the temptations and vulnerabilities inherent to the political world while maximizing the effectiveness of Southern Baptists in shaping American politics toward justice and human flourishing.
Those temptations and vulnerabilities include the danger of making theology the handmaiden of politics rather than politics the handmaiden of our theology. No episode illustrates this danger more vividly in my mind than the actions of Liberty University and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association to soften their tone with regard to Mormonism during the campaign of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. They include also the temptation of Baptist leaders to become king-makers or to try to “deliver the Southern Baptist vote.” Finally, a wrong approach to politics will often produce a commitment to an anemic civil religion that lacks all of the vitality and transformative magic of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
When we are committed to an idea of politics rather than to a political party or a political candidate, we are in a good position to laud when appropriate and criticize when necessary. Allegiances to parties and candidates require the stifling of laudatory statements toward the opposing team and the abrogation of prophetic criticism when “our guys” get it wrong. A strong theory of political parties; therefore, is often the opponent of a theory of politics. A healthy grasp of the role of politics in the life of a Christian is an antidote to the vulnerabilities I mentioned in the previous paragraph.
The Ben Carson Episode
I reacted negatively to the Ben Carson affair because Ben Carson was a Seventh-Day Adventist being invited into a preaching slot at a Southern Baptist meeting, which seemed to me to be a step in the wrong direction with regard to the first vulnerability I listed above. I also reacted because the invitation of a sole candidate in the incipient presidential election to the exclusion of all others tends toward the king-making vulnerability (although I in no way am asserting that this was Willy Rice’s motivation for the invitation, we sometimes fall into these things inadvertently). The final reason for my negative reaction was my concern that such an invitation displaces content helpful to pastors from the Pastors’ Conference in favor of something more in line with civil religion.
I mentioned several other people who would make excellent replacement speakers. Every other political candidate I mentioned was a Republican. Of the non-politicians I mentioned, if any of them are Democrats, it will come as news to me. I cannot imagine any construal that makes my post any sort of a call for “pulling back” from the GOP. There followed posts by other authors, including the guys over at Baptist 21. I cannot find in those posts any unified effort at political realignment of the SBC with regard to party politics. Nor do I find in any of them a call to disengage from political life as Christians. Rather, I read the other posts as further installments along the lines that I had first indicated: A call for a fresh examination of the particular way that faith and politics interact in our hearts, our churches, and our Convention.
Indeed, in that initial article I tried to articulate an alternative approach that would remain just as involved in politics without running afoul of the vulnerabilities I wanted to avoid.
Let’s let the politicians make their cases independently of our meetings. Let’s focus the Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting on prayer and spiritual awakening, as President Ronnie Floyd has so wonderfully asked us to do. Let’s extend our apologies to Dr. Ben Carson and hear Kelvin Cochran in his place. If we need a political rally, let’s have one, separate from our Annual Meeting, and let’s invite ALL of the candidates to come and to make their promises. Let’s consider strongly that we might vote for Dr. Ben Carson (I’ve got his book—a signed copy, no less!—and would vote for him fifty times before I’d vote for Jeb Bush), but let us not change ONE IOTA what we say about and how we relate to Seventh-Day Adventists. Let us make it a believable fiction, at the very least, that what we say about God means more to us than what we say about politics.
Although my paragraph begins with a call to “let the politicians make their cases independently of our meetings,” later you read the caveat, “If we need a political rally, let’s have one, separate from our Annual meeting, and let’s invite ALL of the candidates to come and to make their promises.” If this is a call to disengagement from politics, it is a self-defeating one. No, there’s no pulling back from the GOP here. There’s no disengagement from politics here. Rather, there’s a call for us to keep theology from being the handmaiden of politics, to deal evenhandedly with candidates in any political fora that we host, and to prioritize theological content over political content in our meetings.
SEND North America
I’d rather we hadn’t had political interviews at a missions conference. It’s one thing to say that; it’s another thing to pretend that the Bush/Rubio interviews are an out-and-out reversal of what happened with Ben Carson. What Southern Baptists say about Catholicism will not be changed by the candidacies of these men, because the electorate has already gotten comfortable with the idea of a Roman Catholic President at least as far back as John F. Kennedy. Because the objection is not there, desperate politicians will not be twisting theological pretzels to make some important faith-based case to give the Roman Catholics a fair hearing.
Also, the ERLC applied a fair, across-the-board standard in deciding which candidates to invite. Merritt dismissed and some lampooned or bemoaned the decision to invite Hillary Clinton, but her invitation represented, in my estimation, an important and clear message that this session was nothing approaching an endorsement, and that even (especially?) the candidates least favored by Southern Baptists ought to face Southern Baptist questions about their plans for the nation.
Finally, the format of the event was Question & Answer. There’s a difference, I think, between handing over the microphone to let politicians court the Southern Baptist electorate (they’re not one-at-a-timing, here; they’re MASS communicating) on the one hand and forcing candidates to face questions from Southern Baptists on the other hand. The latter, it seems to me, is a useful thing, even if I might have sought a different occasion to host it. Certainly the public debates sponsored by the TV networks will not feature all of the questions that matter to Southern Baptists, and to have an opportunity to watch candidates fielding our questions can only help, not hurt.
I was encouraged to hear both Bush and Rubio explicitly endorsing a freedom of religious practice rather than the watered-down counterfeit idea of “Freedom of Worship” that the worst presidential administration in the history of our nation on questions of religious liberty has been trying to sell us. Putting candidates on the record about religious liberty, defunding Planned Parenthood, and the like are good things to accomplish.
If you set aside the question of context (that the Q&A took place during the SEND NA conference), this interview meets every criterion I stipulated for a good Southern Baptist event addressing civil politics. Dr. Moore offered an answer as to why these political questions made sense for the missions conference, and it is true that our missions efforts bump up into religious liberty restrictions with some regularity. I’d still be more comfortable with a separate event, but at some point you have to give room to other people to do their jobs a little differently than you would do it if you were them. When you sweep away 80% of the objection that I had to the Ben Carson situation, you bring me down to a point where I can be generally supportive of the event.
And so, I think that Jonathan Merritt has misunderstood the nature of the first controversy, and in doing so, I think he has misinterpreted the nature of the second. Southern Baptists, I hope, remain committed to the causes of prenatal life, religious liberty, and a sexual ethic that runs counter to the Sexual Revolution. For as long as these causes remain important to us, although we may have to move further away from the GOP, we will never be able to move any closer to the Democrats. What we will have to discover is the way that local politics and interpersonal politics, driven by an overarching commitment to the gospel and the winning of souls, can redefine the way that we engage the political process and can bring justice and flourishing to our neighbors, not just for this age, but for the age to come.