Monday, March 10, 2008

Church and State and Southern Baptists

The Southern Baptist Church in which I grew up, studied the Bible, memorized scripture and came to Christ venerated the idea of the separation of Church and State. Roger Williams was our most famous non-Biblical, historical figure. Part of our budget went to support Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Not that politicians were absent from our congregation. The most famous of our members (at least locally) was the Hon. Claude Pepper. But perhaps the most respected politician I saw at our church was Brooks Hays, a member of the House of Representatives from Arkansas, who put his political career on the line when he attempted to mediate the controversy between Governer Faubus and President Eisenhower, over the President's threat (finally carried out) to send troops to Little Rock to integrate the public schools. Hays lost re-election because of that reasonable posture, and visited our church soon after that. Later he was elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

So the Baptists knew politics, no doubt about that. But that's not what you heard from the pulpit. You heard about how Jesus lived, how he treated others, and from whom he came, why he came, was crucified, and rose on the third day, and how that gave all of us the opportunity for a new life. Somehow the clergy trusted the laity to make the connection between the call to model Jesus and how to deal with political and social issues as they arose.

The Presbyterians looked at the matter differently, as I learned in the 70's as Carol and I became active at FPC in Miami Springs. When Anita Bryant led the Christian charge against a proposed county ordinance to make discrimination on account of one's sexual preference as unlawful as discrimination on account of race or gender, our minister at the time not only preached against the ordinance from the pulpit but also organized transportation to the polling places from the church office. (The minister later left our church on account of sexual misconduct himself.) I have never been comfortable with outright politicking from the pulpit. It simply does not belong there. (Sorry Mr. Olansky, Dr. Dobson, etc,)

The WSJ has a fine article today on the IRS investigations into churches that take political positions. The article features Sen. Obama's minister, but the issue is much larger than that particular case. I think the IRS has it right, and I hope the agency continues with its efforts vigorously.

As I read the WSJ article, I thought about Islam's view that politics and religion are, by necessity, conflated, that they are or should be one and the same. How are American Muslims to understand that particular error if the Christians are not scrupulous about the separation of Church and State?

And so I read with astonishment that a group of Southern Baptist "leaders" have signed a declaration on climate change.

Has the Gospel been spread so thoroughly, have the needs of widows and orphans been sufficiently addressed, are the needy no longer with us, have church members reached such maturity that these clergy can spend their time getting involved in a politicized scientific controversy? What in the world happened to the Southern Baptists?


Jana said...

Having worked at a school connected to a SBC mega-church and therefore for one of the signers, Jack Graham, I will tell you that this disgusts me. Oh, that they would join together and sign a document committing to emotionally and finanically support orphanages and urge their members adopt one of the 70 *MILLION* adoptable orphans in the world.

Jana said...

....and I say that as someone who believes Christians should care for the earth....didn't mean to communicate otherwise.

But I mean, priorities, people.

Paul Stokes said...

So right, Jana.