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ANALYSIS: Bush administration prompts shuffle of Baptist groups’ positions in D.C.

WASHINGTON (BP)–As a new administration takes charge in Washington, different Baptist groups have emerged to oppose or support the new president and his agenda. For Southern Baptists it may seem like a trip back in time when activist James Dunn of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs offended the ranks of conservatives in the convention when he accused President Reagan of “despicable demagoguery” and “playing politics with prayer.”

Dunn, now retired from BJC, but still presiding over the organization’s foundation, took a seat at the recent confirmation hearing of John Ashcroft as attorney general to oppose the Bush nominee. Dunn is now a professor of Christianity and public policy at the Wake Forest Divinity School, which counts the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a denomination-like breakaway group from the Southern Baptist Convention, among the sources of its funding.

Dunn, in his testimony, said Ashcroft “has an extremist philosophy” regarding the First Amendment which would slight the importance of church-state separation. He attacked Ashcroft’s defense of faith-based programs, describing such government-supported initiatives as dangerous.

In contrast, the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission’s president, Richard Land, supported Ashcroft, calling him a “man of sterling integrity and bedrock Christian faith” who “will provide protection for the constitutional rights of all citizens and enforce this country’s laws equally.”

The vast majority of Southern Baptists are represented in the nation’s capital by the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission by way of their funding through the SBC’s Cooperative Program. SBC support of BJC ended in the early 1990s when messengers voted to defund the church-state agency and give that assignment to the Christian Life Commission, now known as the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

The BJC now draws financial support from, among others, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, the Baptist General Convention of Texas and another SBC breakaway, the Alliance of Baptists, while SBC funding for the ERLC has since grown to include a Washington office in addition to its base in Nashville, Tenn.

Two Southern Baptist state conventions, meanwhile, send funds to both the ERLC and BJC. The Baptist General Association of Virginia (BGAV) and the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina (BCNC), in effect, fund two organizations that often turn up on opposite sides of the fence regarding religious liberty and moral issues.

BGAV churches select one of three giving plans — the first providing that 34 percent of Cooperative Program funds sent to the state will go to traditional SBC causes, including the ERLC. A second plan — which is the default track if a church does not specifically choose an alternative — cuts the ERLC portion in half and gives nearly three times as much to BJC and twice as much to another CBF-related organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics (BCE) in Nashville. The third plan eliminates ERLC funding in favor of CBF budget proportions for BJCPA and BCE.

In North Carolina, churches select from four funding plans, two of them favoring SBC causes, and the other two allowing varying levels of support for BJC and BCE. More than 90 percent of North Carolina churches channel their Cooperative Program funds through the funding option that deletes BJC support and assists the ERLC.

The Baptist General Convention of Texas voted last October to cut funding and ties to the ERLC in the BGCT preferred budget plan, opting to give the state convention’s Christian Life Commission $740,762 as well as continuing to fund BJC with $63,000.

Thus, Southern Baptists in North Carolina, and those remaining aligned with the older conventions in Virginia and Texas, are faced with deciding whether the views of activists like Dunn best represent their own convictions.

Allan Blume, pastor of Mount Vernon Baptist Church in Boone, N.C., said his church sends half of the more than $100,000 allocated for the Cooperative Program through the state convention plan that provides about 35 percent to SBC causes and the remainder for North Carolina ministry. The other half of church CP gifts is sent directly to the SBC Executive Committee in Nashville in an attempt to make up for those churches that have withdrawn their support of the SBC, Blume said, noting, “We want to support our seminaries, mission causes and the ERLC.”

Blume said he believes Land’s representation of Southern Baptists through the ERLC is in line with the views of his church members and the majority of the SBC. “That’s why we have him serving in the leadership position he’s in. When he becomes unrepresentative of us, we need to ask him to step down.”

Both Virginia and Texas have newly established state conventions offering Southern Baptist churches another means of channeling their mission offerings. The Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia (SBCV) and the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention (SBTC) were founded with a convictional commitment to support the SBC.

Though Dunn said in his testimony against Ashcroft that he was speaking for himself, his continued identification with BJC is strongly emphasized on the organization’s Internet site and noted in media coverage of the confirmation hearings. Texas Christian Life Commission Executive Director Phil Strickland also expressed concern over the Ashcroft nomination — and criticism of Land for being “out of bounds” when he claimed to represent Southern Baptists views on the confirmation.

Strickland acknowledged that his “enthusiasm for Senator Ashcroft as attorney general is greatly diminished by his support for radical cuts in welfare assistance to needy people, his consistent opposition to church/state separation, and his obvious embrace of the political Religious Right.”

Even Robert Parham of the Baptist Center for Ethics conceded that Dunn’s “longtime leadership of the BJC appears to be the qualifying factor for his invitation to testify. He questioned whether Dunn stepped “on the line when he presented testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee opposing Ashcroft’s confirmation.”

Parham saved his harshest criticism for Land, accusing him of violating the denomination’s “historic commitment to non-endorsement of political candidates.” Land defended his action, saying he is tasked with encouraging those who support the views endorsed by Southern Baptists through resolutions and convictional statements.

The BJC’s current executive director, Brent Walker, has said his agency neither supports nor opposes nominees. But he questioned whether Ashcroft could set aside his personal beliefs in order to enforce the religious rights of all Americans. Walker serves on the board of an organization that urged its 60,000 members in 5,000 churches to oppose confirmation of Ashcroft — Americans United for Separation of Church and State. AU’s executive director, Barry Lynn, also warned of Ashcroft’s ties to Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.

CBF Coordinator Daniel Vestal recently wrote of his love for “the kind of house that freedom builds.” With space for differing and sometimes even competing ideas among Baptists, Vestal said, “Differing perspectives are not only tolerated but encouraged. So in the Baptist house you have a Jerry Falwell and a James Dunn; a Jesse Helms and a Jesse Jackson; a Billy Graham and a Martin Luther King Jr.; a Bill Clinton and a Trent Lott.”

In August of last year, Walker praised the selection of Sen. Joseph Lieberman to be Al Gore’s running mate, urging voters to “cast their ballots based on policy positions that a candidate says flow from his or her religious convictions.” He added that “religious prejudice has no place in American politics.”

Land urged Senate Judiciary Committee members to “reject the religious test promoted by some radical voices who would disqualify Mr. Ashcroft from this office because he is willing to apply his Christianity to his public life.”

The BGCT, though defunding the ERLC, nevertheless finds room on its programs for James Dunn, whom the Texas convention once honored with a distinguished service award. The BGCT has scheduled both Dunn and Walker to speak at the Feb. 12-13 statewide conference of its Christian Life Commission. The event focuses on “remembering, understanding and interpreting religious liberty as a Baptist distinctive.”

In an interview with Religious News Service, Dunn said he no longer describes himself as a Southern Baptist. “I’m a recovering Southern Baptist,” he said. “I’m trying to get over it.”

Since Dunn has moved away from affiliation with the SBC, some question why state conventions fund his defense of positions that do not represent the convictions of Southern Baptists. “It was a cause of great concern to me that BGCT would fund anybody whose agenda was so liberal and who opposed conservative Christians so vigorously,” stated R.E. Smith, a retired psychologist from Dallas who also serves as a trustee at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. The BJC even staked out a position opposing a nonbinding resolution passed by the House of Representatives in 1999 asking the Supreme Court to permit student-led prayers at high school football games. The court ruled against such prayers last summer.

Dunn “walks in [the Senate] with his credentials of years as a spokesman of Baptists in America. And although he’s no longer the executive director of BJC, he’s a visiting professor of one of the seminaries supported by CBF. And he’s still a spokesman for the Baptist General Convention of Texas,” Smith said.

Smith’s own church, First Baptist of Dallas, redirected the majority of its Cooperative Program allocation away from BGCT in 1999, objecting to documented links between the BGCT and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and a host of organizations, such as Texas Baptists Committed, critical of the SBC’s conservative stance on biblical and moral concerns.

Smith speculated that many large Southern Baptist churches in Texas would follow First Baptist in joining the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention were it not for having members in those congregations who serve on the boards and agencies of BGCT benevolence ministries or Baptist colleges.

“I have two very good friends who pastor large Southern Baptist churches that are not affiliated with SBTC. I know their hearts and their theology and I can safely conclude that they would be terribly opposed to James Dunn giving testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on behalf of Baptists to oppose a man because he was a conservative Christian.”

Leaders within the CBF have sometimes found fellowship in the past administration, while current SBC leaders praise actions of the new president. Vestal joined Dunn, Walker and other Baptists at President Clinton’s final White House prayer breakfast last fall, calling the event “an inspiring experience.” Vestal said Clinton had shown “an honesty and vulnerability about his struggles, and in that sense he has been an inspiration to many of us.”

A pre-inaugural gathering that included Southern Baptists Chuck Colson of Prison Fellowship and others from SBC churches provided an opportunity to encourage Christians to pray for President Bush. Colson predicted that Bush would restore “moral sanity to the office.”

Having met and heard John Ashcroft prior to the inauguration, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President-elect Phil Roberts said the cabinet nominee “exhibited and exuded the Spirit of Christ in his demeanor and in everything that he said.” Roberts questioned how groups like the BJC could level opposition to the Bush appointment.

“When you consider the consistency of his positions from a Christian perspective,” Roberts said, “it would be impossible to understand how a Bible-based Christian could oppose him on the basis of his policies. Opposing John Ashcroft in both of these regards would almost be like opposing Billy Graham.”

Kent Choate, who has responsibility for Family Ministries at Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, said Land has done a good job of representing the concerns of Oklahoma Baptists through the ERLC. “There’s no one person that speaks for all Southern Baptists,” Choate reiterated, adding, “We’re autonomous in every way you can imagine. But he truly does represent the best we can offer as a spokesman for an issue like the confirmation of Senator Ashcroft.

“As head of one of our SBC entities, Dr. Land is well-educated and has a good handle on representing Southern Baptists from the viewpoint of our doctrines and Baptist theology as it relates to the world,” Choate said.

With James Dunn resurfacing to rally opposition to a pro-life, pro-family cabinet nominee, Southern Baptists who sought to shift the religious liberty responsibilities from BJC to the CLC are reminded of the battle they waged from 1987 to 1991. When a motion was made in 1990 to extend the Christian Life Commission’s program statement to give Southern Baptists their own voice in Washington, former SBC Executive Committee chairman Charles Sullivan stated, “We had the Baptist Joint Committee speaking for a bill. The CLC was against it. The reason: One was told they could speak for religious liberty; the other was told they could speak only for Christian ethics.” Sullivan successfully argued, “We need a common voice representing our convention,” and messengers approved the motion.

By the next year, the BJC was completely defunded and angered Baptists came through on threats to help make up the deficit as several state conventions designated money away from the Cooperative Program to assist the BJC. Looking back some 10 years later, Sullivan has no doubt that Southern Baptists made the right move.

“The decision we made 10 years ago was exactly the decision that Southern Baptists needed to make for the benefit of the whole convention and for our witness all across this nation,” said Sullivan, now serving as executive director for the State Convention of Baptists in Indiana. “I think the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission does a superb job in representing those of us who are Southern Baptists.”

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  • Tammi Reed Ledbetter