The decision by Pastor Chan Chandler’s East Waynesville Baptist Church, a congregation affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, to expel democrats who voted for John Kerry should be an easy act to condemn for church leaders. Southern Baptist leaders, however, seem to have a hard time finding much they disagree with in Chandler’s acts.
Waylan Owens, who serves as vice president of planning and communications at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, NC, is one of Chandler’s professors. He wrote an article about the controversy for Baptist Press in which he said in part:
You cannot call yourself a member of a church that stands against abortion and then actively support abortion through your politics.
What a novel idea! Your life should match your religious profession. As we used to say when I was growing up, “You gotta walk the talk!” Imagine that, Christians living out with integrity what they claim to believe.
What is strange is that the media would not be sympathetic to Chan. After all, they are constantly reporting the lack of integrity among God’s people who claim to believe one way and then live another. Aren’t we all tired of the Christians, especially pastors and church leaders, who are caught in adultery and embezzlement and tax fraud each year? Wouldn’t we all like men who claim to preach the Word also call us to live the Word?
Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, is perhaps the most prominent leader of his denomination. Mohler not only runs the seminary but also writes for several web sites and has his own radio show. When you want a Southern Baptist to respond to a pressing current issue this is the man the media turns to. What has he said about this debate?
Nothing that I can find. His home page does offer though what promises to be an interesting segment from a recent radio program.
(I haven’t taken the opportunity to listen to the story but I’m sure - knowing Mohler - that he thinks wrestling somehow leads to homosexuality and that liberal judges secretly engage in mud wrestling sessions after issuing court opinions that support same sex marriage.
But I digress.)
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, offered more wisdom on this issue when he told Baptist Press:
"I don't know the particulars of the situation, but I certainly acknowledge the right of each local autonomous congregation to decide the requirements for membership in their church," Land told BP. "However, I would also add that the right to determine membership does not always mean that it is exercised in a correct fashion. I believe it would never -- never -- be appropriate or acceptable for a local Baptist church to decide membership based upon how a person votes.
"I believe that preachers and pastors have a responsibility and an obligation to preach what the Bible says about moral, social public policy issues and to encourage people to vote, and when they vote, to vote their values, their beliefs and their convictions. But the decision about the candidate must remain part of the individual responsibility of the priesthood of all believers. A person's casting of a ballot should never be a cause for church discipline."
Republicans keep pushing legislation that would remove the prohibition on churches from endorsing partisan political candidates. So far the legislation, which has been opposed by nearly every religious denomination, hasn’t gotten too far. Most responsible religious leaders understand that churches should not become the outposts of secular political parties.
Sadly, the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention aren’t quite sure how far their support of American democracy goes. Mohler, after all, was one of the speakers at the religious right-sponsored “Justice Sunday.” That event explicitly stated that those who opposed the Bush Administration and / or the religious right opposed Christianity itself. The events of the last several months – ever since the November 2004 elections – have been chilling as we clearly witness an effort by the religious right to force their theology on all Americans. The events last week in North Carolina are just the latest example.
The Christian Right's posture in the showdown over the "nuclear option" has been a stark lesson in how religious language and imagery are inappropriately seeping into government and politics. First, of course, religion is defined as a particular religion and then defined further as a particular brand of that religion so as to exclude all other views and versions as irreligious, immoral, or wrong. Moreover, in this worldview, Christianity and Country are inseparable. One of the "Justice Sunday" speakers, Dr. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, put it in terms as chilling to religious liberty and diversity as any I've ever heard. Like other fundamentalists, Mohler believes there is only one correct interpretation of the Bible-his-and he equated the inerrancy of his interpretation of the Bible with the inerrancy of the Constitution, based on his biblical beliefs. In bringing the Bible and the Constitution together, fundamentalists like Mohler are moving toward mainstreaming their biblically based interpretation of the Constitution. Judges would be held to the standard of biblical teachings, as interpreted by fundamentalists. I don't doubt the sincerity of Mohler and other fundamentalist ministers who share this view that the Bible is literally true and they alone know what it means, but they are on dangerous ground when they then suggest that they alone also know what the Constitution means-and that anyone who thinks differently is anti-Christian. Christians have strong differences of opinion on the meaning of scriptures and most of us don't want to see a particular brand of Christianity held up as the only real Christianity. We certainly don't want a particular brand of Christianity enacted as the law of the land.
These are dangerous times for America. Let us pray the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention come to an understanding that can affirm both their faith and the nation’s principles of tolerance and pluralism (the same values many progressive Christians feel represent the best of our tradition as well).