After 21 years of heading up the Baptist Center for Ethics (BCE) and a dozen years of EthicsDaily.com, I’ve learned a lot about faith in the public square. Here’s a short list.
First, it takes a long time to say hello to Baptists and a lot of time to tell others that we’re not that kind of Baptist.
I introduce every week goodwill Baptists to BCE/EthicsDaily.com, folk who by church membership and theological conviction should know who we are and what we do. But they don’t.
And seemingly every week, I explain to folk outside the Baptist tribe that we aren’t the anti-everything kind of Baptists. We’re the common-good kind of Baptists.
Sitting at a table several years ago at an international meeting of scientists and activists concerned about climate change, I watched the expressions of horror and disbelief when I introduced myself as a Baptist. One university professor literally pushed his chair back from the table.
Some Baptists have created such a negative stereotype in the public square that it sticks to the shoe soles of every other Baptist soul. It’s going to take a lot longer than we have to introduce ourselves.
Second, a commitment to the common good trumps doctrinal expressions.
Some of the most substantive work we’ve done has been across ecumenical and interfaith boundaries. People of different faiths are willing to set aside doctrinal differences to help those in the ditch.
Take our work on advancing the common good for the undocumented through “Gospel Without Borders.” A historically unique partnership has emerged between some Baptists and Catholics. A moral vision – rooted in the biblical imperative to welcome the stranger and treat them with kindness and justice – transcends our doctrinal disagreement over baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
So powerful is the moral vision that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops mailed a copy of our DVD to all U.S. Catholic bishops, urging them to use it in their churches.
Or take our work with the Islamic Society of North America. We have a different sacred text from Muslims. We don’t share the same understanding of who Jesus is. We do share a common moral vision that we must love our neighbors, as evidenced by “Different Books, Common Word.”
Third, the accusation of partisanship is the first stone thrown in disagreement over a moral critique.
When we argued that the Iraq War failed to pass the rules of just war and offered an ongoing moral critique of the Bush administration, we were accused of being partisan. We were accused of being Democrats.
When we recently said President Obama was playing politics with faith and immigration, we were accused of being partisan. We were told not to question his faith. We were accused of being Republicans.
Fourth, political loyalty is more important than moral consistency for partisans.
When we produced “Golden Rule Politics,” a DVD that challenges how the Christian Right misapplies faith, we received applause from a number of moderate Baptist pastors and a host of church-going Democrats. They recognized that the claim that GOP stands for God’s Only Party was flawed.
When we challenged how Obama practices his faith and questioned the political nature of how the Democratic Party claims to be the party of real faith, we upset some folk.
As long as one critiques the other side, one is on the right side (right as in correct, not right as in ideological).
Fifth, parallel universes exist at the ideological extremes.
As a student, I learned that fundamentalism was a faith reality on the rightward edge of religion. I now know that fundamentalism exists at the leftward edge of religion.
The left is as intolerant of moral disagreement as the right is. Both demand complete agreement, 100 percent acceptance, of their position. Ideological purity is a greater value for some than moral pragmatism.
Sixth, Baptists (and many other Christians) want to engage the world in ways that make a real difference.
Many goodwill people of faith would rather use a hammer to build a house with a low-income family than write a letter to Congress to support funding for low-income housing. Church folk would rather give an offering for hunger relief than call their representative about increasing foreign aid. It is what it is.
That’s why social justice initiatives must be practical, connecting hands-on initiatives with systemic concerns.
Seventh, Baptists are a people of the book – regardless of how they read the Bible.
If one makes a moral case rooted in the Bible, then most Baptists will listen. Getting folk to listen is a critical first step in social change. Folk may ultimately disagree with one’s argument. Nonetheless, connectivity has been created and a moral argument has been heard.
Deconstructing the text to bulk up one’s cultural position gets a hearing from only a small audience with a pre-existing ideological commitment.
So, respect the text. Take the Bible seriously, and Baptists will take one seriously. Citing a text, doing a word study or applying a biblical narrative is the best way to communicate with Baptists about social and moral issues. Science is useful. Economic data is helpful. Historic analysis is insightful. The Bible is central.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook.