A Southern Baptist Convention official violated the denomination’s historic commitment to non-endorsement of political candidates and breached his own claim of non-partisan political alignment when he endorsed former Senator John Ashcroft as attorney general.
Richard Land, executive director of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, endorsed Ashcroft in a letter to members of the U.S. Senate.
“On behalf of the vast majority of over 16 million Southern Baptists nationwide, I urge you to support the confirmation of Sen. John Ashcroft,” he wrote last week.
Never before had the head of the SBC’s public policy agency endorsed a nominee for a cabinet position.
Land justified this unprecedented action on the grounds that others in the political arena were opposing Ashcroft because he “is an open and avowed evangelical Christian.” Land claimed that an “anti-evangelical test for office” was being applied to Ashcroft.
Ashcroft is a member of the Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal denomination. Most religious observers and Baptist pastors make a profound distinction between Pentecostalism and evangelicalism.
Pentecostals practice speaking in tongues, anointing with oil and prophecy. The Pentecostal movement has been far more racially diverse and open to women preachers than evangelical fundamentalism.
Land’s endorsement of Ashcroft came only three months after he said, “We do not engage in partisan politics.”
He also said he did not endorse candidates as a private citizen. “That means no political signs in my yard and no bumper stickers on my car,” he said.
Few observers of religion in politics accept the veracity of Land’s assertion of non-partisanship. His affiliation, statements and conference programs disclose a denominational official who actively supports the right wing of the Republican Party.
At one point in apparent frustration, he even told the New York Times he wanted the Republican Party to marry the religious right. He said, “We want a wedding ring, we want a ceremony, we want a consummation of the marriage.”
While Land dishonored Baptist heritage, he may not have been the only Baptist official to cross the plane of non-partisanship.
Did James Dunn, former head of the Baptist Joint Committee, step on the line when he presented testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee opposing Ashcroft’s confirmation?
At the beginning of his testimony, Dunn said, “I’m opposed to the nomination of Senator Ashcroft to be attorney general.” He said Ashcroft was “unqualified and unreliable” to serve as attorney general.
Although Dunn did not give testimony on behalf of the BJC, he is the current president of the BJC Endowment. As a part-time employee, he is an official of the BJC. Moreover, his long-time leadership of the BJC appears to be the qualifying factor for his invitation to testify.
Brent Walker, BJC’s executive director, said earlier in the week his agency neither supports nor opposes nominees.
In some sense, Dunn’s testimony and Land’s letter represent different shoes in the same dance.
The problem is not the content of their positions. Both are free to state any arguments they wish to make, regardless of the profundity or goofiness of their reasoning.
The problem is the multi-headed hydra of Baptist denominational officials in politics.
One part of this problem concerns representation. Baptist heritage has long held that no Baptist speaks for another Baptist. Land’s claim that he represents the vast majority of 16 million Baptists is a stretch. And even if he could definitively know the mind of Baptists, speaking for the majority flies against the best of historic Baptist principles.
To his credit, Dunn said he spoke only for himself.
A second slice of the problem relates to affiliation. The first affiliation of denominational officials should be with the kingdom of God, not a political party. God’s kingdom transcends secular politics and includes those with diverse political commitments. Baptist faith communities are comprised of Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, Independents and those who are politically indifferent.
Sitting several rows in front and to the right of me on Sunday morning in church is a lawyer who served as the chief-of-staff for Senator Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). He was a key staff member for Lamar Alexander, when Alexander was a Republican presidential candidate in 2000.
Sitting close to the front of the sanctuary and to my left on Sunday morning is another lawyer. He and his wife were introduced to one another by Tipper Gore. His family and the Gores have been close family friends for more than a generation.
My church, like most Baptist churches, has members with assorted political priorities. Thus, denominational officials should respect this richness and avoid high-profile affiliations.
A third issue is prophetic religion. Denominational officials in the public square must maintain their distance from politicians and parties. When they stand too close, they may lose their ability to see clearly and speak truthfully to power. They may risk becoming court prophets.
The biblical witness holds court prophets in contempt. They were the religious sycophants of their day. The real prophets came from outside the king’s court to speak truth.
Whether agency officials endorse nominees or testify against them in Congress, their actions are too cozy with partisan politics.
So, what is the proper role for agency officials in politics?
The proper role is to pray for all political leaders and meet with them to offer counsel. The ethical role is to critique the moral reasoning of politicians and pundits. The right approach is to speak to issues out of moral principles instead of visceral loyalties. The fitting way is to articulate biblical standards and apply them to society.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.