Southern Baptists have walked a long and winding road on the subject of race. In the 1950s, SBC conservatives like WA Criswell, pastor of the 20,000 member First Baptist Church Dallas, denounced the civil rights movement as a communist enterprise. Criswell denounced the Suprme Court as a “bunch of infidels” following the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954.
But by the mid-1960s, Criswell was confessing to a “colossal mistake” and admitting that his take on race relations had been deeply flawed. This bold admission made it possible for other conservative Southern Baptists to hop on the racial harmony express by denouncing racial prejudice and inviting black pastors to speak in their churches once a year.
Every year, Southern Baptists passed high-sounding pro civil rights decrees drafted by the denomination’s Christian Life Commission. At the congregational level, conditions were far more complicated, of course. Pastors and leading lay leaders didn’t shift from animosity to embrace in a mere decade. On the other hand, they didn’t oppose the denominational rush to the center on the race issue. Colorblind orthodoxy was too void of content to warrant strenuous opposition.
One might have expected that the SBC enthusiasm for civil rights would cool significantly after the nation’s largest Protestant denomination sent its moderate minority into wilderness exile in the 1980s and 90s. Nothing of the sort. In fact, the denomination’s new opinion leaders have made a point of apologizing for slavery and speaking appreciatively of civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King.
Bob Allen’s piece on Richard Land, president of the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, helps us understand this perspective. Instead of denouncing civil rights leaders as crypto-communists, Southern Baptist leaders are arguing that they are facing essentially the same oppressive forces men like King confronted half a century ago.
Land makes much of the fact that King’s famous letter to southern white clergy was composed from a prison cell. If Barack Obama’s opposition to religious liberty continues unabated, Land suggests, Christian men and women of Christian conscience may soon be dragged off to prison for refusing to bend the knee to Caesar.
This is a very clever argument, especially in the wake of the Obama administration’s tone-deaf decision to force Catholic hospitals to provide contraceptive services. This is a tough issue. Catholic hospitals, after all, service non-Catholics. On the other hand, common sense militates against forcing anyone to go against conscience in order to stay in business. Men like Richard Land can argue that his Catholic friends are being oppressed for their faith just as King et al faced discrimination because of their race.
I’m not buying. Barack Obama believes in religious freedom as much as Richard Land. The difference is that Obama, speaking and acting as the president of all Americans, believes in religious freedom for Muslims and secularists as well as Protestant and Catholic Christians.
If Richard Land wants to claim the likes of Deitrich Bonhoeffer and MLK as his spiritual forebears, there isn’t much either man can do about it. The dead have no opinions.
Still, it does my heart good to hear a Southern Baptist leader admitting, without qualm or qualification, that his childhood pastors and Sunday school teachers were deaf, dumb and blind on race. It is also nice to hear a Southern Baptist defending the interests of Roman Catholics. I wish such enlightened views dominated at the congregational level, but my gut tells me it ain’t so.
Still, when rank and file Southern Baptists hear their leaders speaking this way, it opens new windows of moral opportunity.
Land’s rhetoric is best interpreted as another sign that Americans, conservative and liberal, are continuing our slow stagger in the general direction of racial justice. The Baptist leader is wielding civil rights as a polemical club, but sometimes it’s refreshing to see a religious leader doing the right thing, even if its for the wrong reason.
By Bob Allen
January 30, 2012
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (ABP) – The Southern Baptist Convention’s top public-policy expert says that Christians who still support President Obama are not using their heads.
Richard Land, president of the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said on the Jan. 28 broadcast of Richard Land Live that while he believes Obama faces an uphill battle for re-election, he is surprised that so many Christians still back the president.
“I know Christians who support Obama,” Land said. “I don’t question their faith, but I do question their judgment.”
Land said the Obama administration has waged a “full-fledged war to move us from freedom of religion to merely freedom of worship, implying that one’s faith is only a private matter and that exercising that faith in public is not a protected right.”
Land called a new rule requiring insurance plans to cover birth control — including those paid for by religious employers that believe artificial birth control is a sin — a “horrible decision” that poses a problem not just for faiths that object to birth control.
“Will our religious affiliated groups be forced to hire people who oppose our faith?” he asked. “Will the government force a curriculum on our schools and our homeschoolers? Just a few years ago these possibilities seemed beyond the realm of possibility. Now they seem very real.”
Land said people who claim to be conservative, evangelical Christians “are exercising very poor judgment” if “they continue to support a president who is squelching their religious freedoms.” The reason it happens, he said, is that “people are not terribly rational.”
“We have what are called compartmentalized attitude structures,” Land said. “Jimmy Carter is a good example. Jimmy Carter went around campaigning for president in 1976 and said ‘I believe in the basic goodness of the American people,’ and ‘I’m a born-again Christian.’ Well, if you’re a born-again Christian you don’t believe in the basic goodness of anybody, because you believe in original sin. But, you see, he was holding these two contradictory attitudes in the same brain.”
“Many of us of a certain age know people — who when we were children they were adults — who gave every evidence of being really pious Christians but who were racists, and didn’t see any contradiction between their racism and their Christian faith,” he continued.
Land said those people supported candidates like four-time presidential candidate George Wallace and segregationist Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett“because they failed to see the contradiction between what they were voting and what they believed.”
“I don’t question those people’s faith,” Land said. “I knew some of them. Some of them were older men when I was younger, when I was a boy, and they gave every evidence of being Christians, but they had a huge blind spot on race. So I question their judgment, and I would in fact say that their racism was a sin, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t Christian. So I don’t question their faith; I question their faith understanding when it came to certain issues.”
Land said the Obama administration “has shown from the very beginning that it is hostile to free religious expression.”
“There’s no question about that,” he said. “They have done thing after thing after thing after thing.”
“This is really serious,” Land said. “You’ll hear the Obama administration; they are disciplined in their talking about this. They talk about freedom of worship. They talk about freedom of worship overseas and they talk about freedom of worship at home. We do not have a guarantee of freedom of worship. We have a guarantee to freedom of religion.”
Land said the free-exercise of religion protected by the Constitution “will involve us in much more than just worship.”
“And the government under the Obama administration wants to curtail that and to restrict it to the private sector only,” Land said. “There can be no other explanation for what they have done the last three and a half years.”
Land urged Christians concerned about religious liberty to sign the Manhattan Declaration, a 4,700-word manifesto that has garnered nearly 500,000 online signatures. The document, drafted by Catholic scholar Robert George and Southern Baptists Chuck Colson and Timothy George, says Christians are to respect and obey those who are in authority but not required to obey laws that are “gravely unjust or require those subject to them to do something unjust or otherwise immoral.”
Land said a prime example of effective civil disobedience was Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous letter written from the Birmingham, Ala., jail. “That’s what gave it moral stature,” Land said. “If he had written it from an Atlanta hotel room, it wouldn’t have had the impact it had.”
Land said the question of when civil disobedience becomes a moral option hinges on whether other means of protest are available. “The threshold was lower for Dr. King than it is for us, and the reason is that he and most of the people he was seeking to free couldn’t vote,” Land said.
“We have the right to vote. We have the right to file suit in court,” Land said. “I would argue that there are certain means that need to be exhausted before we reach civil disobedience, but that civil disobedience must always remain the ultimate option if the government forces us to choose between obeying God or man.”
“What I’ve argued is that if we all say we’re going to obey God rather than man — we’re going to not allow them to restrict our religious freedom — if we all hang together, then none of us will have to go to jail,” he said. “If we don’t, we may all end up in jail.”