The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the nation’s largest Protestant denomination whose leadership is a bulwark of far-right fundamentalism, is ratcheting up its political operations.
The Christian Index, Georgia’s state Baptist newspaper, recently carried an interesting and unusually frank report on the SBC’s lobbying outpost in Washington, D.C., just four blocks from the Capitol.
“It is in this environment,” says the newspaper, “that Southern Baptists have a significant presence through the ministry of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC). Richard Land, president of the ERLC, visits Washington often from his primary office in Nashville and is wielding an ever-increasing influence in his efforts to make the will of Christ supreme in public affairs.”
Apparently the “will of Christ” just happens to dovetail with the policy goals of the far right. According to the ERLC Web site, the unit takes stands on legislation and pushes for the confirmation of Bush court appointees. The issues tackled run the usual Religious Right gamut – opposing legal abortion, gay rights, hate-crimes laws and stem-cell research and supporting “court-stripping” legislation and other efforts to make it harder to pursue church-state separation claims in federal court.
ERLC’s goal, the story notes, is to turn the 16-million-member religious group into a disciplined political machine.
“The primary point I want to stress,” ERLC’s Barrett Duke told The Index, “is the need to build a grassroots base of support for these issues that are important to the foundation and fabric of our nation. There are 16,000,000 Southern Baptists and we should be able to shut down the congressional switchboard all by ourselves when there is a need to voice our convictions on a certain issue.”
ERLC’s Land, who has been one of the most faithful cheerleaders for the Bush administration and who is now pushing former senator Fred Thompson for president, is blunt about the group’s religious-political agenda.
In an essay on ERLC’s Web site, he insists, “We must convince Christians to run for elected offices at every level, then encourage them to act on their faith-based convictions while they are in office. We must walk, talk, and vote our values.” (Religious Right activists like Land use the word “Christian” in a narrow sense, referring to those who share their religious-political agenda.)
Land denies that Southern Baptists want a government that gets involved in religion, but his own words seem to belie that claim.
“When we preach that Gospel,” he writes, “and God has blessed it and people’s hearts and minds have been changed, then they have the right as citizens to come forth in the public arena and say, ‘This is wrong, and we want it stopped.’”
“For example,” he continued, “abortion is the murder of babies, and we want laws to change it. When we convince a majority of Americans that we are right, that’s not called a theocracy, that’s called the democratic process.”
Land then insists that all he seeks is “a level playing field.”
“Does that mean,” asks Land, “that false religions have the same rights to express their opinions and their beliefs as we do? Sure. Let them come. I never saw Elijah backing away from a confrontation with the prophets of Baal. He just showed them the power of the One True God!”
On AU’s blog, “The Wall of Separation,” Joseph L. Conn, AU’s director of communications, notes that Land’s example might not be the best one.
“According to the scriptures, after Elijah won the contest over whose God was the true one, he had all the false priests of Baal slain. (I Kings 18:40),” wrote Conn. “Somehow, I’m not feeling the ecumenical love.”
Added Conn, “Southern Baptists, historically, were ardent supporters of church-state separation. Many still are. We will count on those dissenters to help us see that Land and company do not achieve their megalomaniacal goals.”