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Baptists play key role in civic debate, Land tells trustees

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission enjoyed an “eventful year,” President Richard Land told ERLC trustees Sept. 12, noting significant developments that Land said should please religious conservatives.

Land said the confirmation of two new strict-constructionist, original-intent Supreme Court justices was greatly aided and assisted by social issues groups in Washington, including the Southern Baptist ethics & religious liberty entity.

“People in Washington, D.C., understand that the difference between the ERLC and other social groups is that we have boots on the ground,” Land said. “We have churches in virtually every community in the U.S., and we have people in those churches who are deeply concerned about these issues and who are already activated on these issues and who are just waiting to be pointed in the right direction.”

Land said there was wisdom in having the SBC entity’s main office in Nashville, not in D.C. “You need to have an anchor outside the Beltway,” Land said. “The beltway is surrounded on all sides by reality. Washington is an exciting place in many ways, but it is not the real world.”

“With Southern Baptists providing pressure, the ground has shifted in an important direction and to our advantage when it comes to the Supreme Court of the United States,” Land told the trustees during their annual two-day meeting in Nashville, Tenn.

“The fact we now have John Roberts as chief justice is an enormous shift in our direction,” Land continued, noting a welcome sign was Roberts’ assertion during his confirmation hearings that as a justice on the high court the Constitution is his client and that he promised to follow what it says.

“His humility as opposed to judicial hubris is sorely needed in our federal judiciary,” Land added, noting that Roberts is 33 years younger than the man he succeeded as chief justice, William Rehnquist.

Land also praised the nomination and confirmation of Justice Samuel Alito, noting that the jurist replaced Sandra Day O’Connor — a swing vote — on the court.

While the Supreme Court lacks a conservative majority, Land said it is a decidedly more favorable place for conservatives with four right-leaning justices, four liberal justices and one swing vote, Anthony Kennedy. “Yet Justice Kennedy swings the wrong way on many issues that are important to people in this room, the moral and social issues,” Land lamented.

Land said when the nation’s highest court hears the case involving the partial-birth abortion ban, he is hopeful the court will find the ban constitutional, especially since the last time such a case came before the court, it was O’Connor voting to allow the late-term abortions to continue and Kennedy indicating his support of the ban. Yet Land doesn’t expect Kennedy to support “more severe restrictions on abortion.”

Land said conservatives are within “striking distance” of being able to make significant changes on the court, noting there are two left-leaning justices who may leave the court in the near term. “These are changes that will undo a half century of judicial activism in the U.S.,” he added.

Land acknowledged complaints by religious and other social conservatives that the Bush administration is not pushing conservatives’ agenda hard enough. Land’s response: “We should not make the perfect the enemy of the good.

“Have we gotten all we wanted over the last few years? No. But we have made significant gains,” Land said, adding that some of the gains “will take the liberals a long time to undo.”

The future looks bright, he suggested, noting, “We are living in a century that is increasingly in America a century of religion.” He noted that a survey, conducted by Gallup and analyzed by Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion, underscored the fact that one’s view of God informs one’s values and politics.

Not only the survey’s findings, but also the survey’s prominent placement in USA TODAY is telling, Land said. “It is rare that any story about religion makes it to the section above the fold on the front page in a large circulation newspaper,” he noted.

Americans’ religious pursuits are “not a hobby,” Land said. “We are living in a country that is becoming more religious rather than less.

“I see many more signs to be encouraged than I do signs to be discouraged,” Land said, citing as an example his selection for membership on the Council on Foreign Relations.

Land said the council, a nonpartisan think tank that seeks to better understand the world and the foreign policy choices facing the United States and other governments, is seeking to broaden its scope by having more evangelicals involved in its deliberations.

SBC President Frank Page spoke to trustees Sept. 11 during a dinner on the eve of the board’s meetings. Page affirmed the work of the ERLC and underscored the importance of a vibrant Cooperative Program for support of SBC causes. Page, who was elected president during the 2006 SBC annual meeting in Greensboro, N.C., is pastor of First Baptist Church of Taylors, S.C.

Former SBC President Paige Patterson addressed ERLC trustees during their Sept. 12 evening meeting.

“It is the responsibility of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission on behalf of Southern Baptists to assist our people in learning the ways of God,” Patterson said, looking to Isaiah 55:8-9.

Patterson, who was awarded the ERLC’s Distinguished Service Award in 2005, said the ERLC had made a “monumental difference in Southern Baptist churches on the subject of race,” noting the denomination had a “spotted history” on the issue. Racism still exists and the “job is not fully done,” he said, but the ERLC “has been the primary player in reversing the tide of racism in our churches.”

The ERLC also has stood as “champions of life,” said Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. Patterson said that under Land’s leadership “life of the innocent” is given the attention it deserves.

The ERLC led the way in raising concern over embryonic stem cell harvesting, he said, noting that many people don’t understand the issue and the ERLC helped Baptists get a grasp on the immorality of the practice.

Patterson also commended the ERLC for its emphasis on Christian citizenship, calling the group’s iVoteValues.com initiative a “fresh breath of air.”

“Baptists don’t vote Republican, and they don’t vote Democratic,” Patterson continued. “They vote godly, biblical values.”

Saluting the ERLC for its work on behalf of Southern Baptists in the nation’s capital, Patterson said even more needs to be done internationally about the “abuse of women and children by sex trafficking,” and he stressed that Baptists must continue to be “ardent spokesmen for religious liberty” around the world.

Patterson went on to say there are issues much closer to home with which Southern Baptists also must contend: “There are things happening in our beloved convention today that are most unfortunate. There is — more than ought to be — a failure of integrity in our pulpits.”

While refusing to say the failure is epidemic — because the vast majority of men in the pulpits of the denomination are “men of integrity” — these situations are characterized by an “absolute failure of basic integrity,” he said.

What is true in the pulpit is also true in the pew, Patterson continued. “Our churches are in a postmodern stance where integrity is no longer really important. I believe the time has come for the ERLC to lead our churches into a new commitment to what is usually described as the Christian virtues,” he said, also expressing concern at the “massive number of firings of ministers” that is “largely a misuse of congregationalism.”

Admitting some may need to be fired, Patterson said being a pastor of a local church is now the toughest assignment in all of history. “It’s worse than being a high school football coach on the high plains of Texas,” he said with a knowing grin.

Congregationalism has not been clearly defined but has been incorrectly defined as monthly business meetings where everybody has the right to say whatever they want to say, Patterson said.

“Because we have encouraged the rugged individualism rather than a Spirit-filled and Spirit-led congregation, we are now reaping the results,” he continued, noting 21st-century technology allows dissatisfied church members to attack the pastor with impunity by launching a blog, an online digest.

“We have lost our way on integrity,” he said, adding, “We need to make clear to our people, and the seminaries need to join you in this, what congregationalism means and what it doesn’t mean.”

In closing, Patterson turned his attention toward ERLC President Land, saying, “Never was there a man made for a job like Richard Land was for this job.” He said Land took charge of what was then the Christian Life Commission “at a very tough time” and that Land is now the most-tenured of any active national SBC entity executive.

Land is the perfect combination to head the ERLC, Patterson said. “He was a historian, a theologian, a keen student of political science, an ethicist who grew up in very humble circumstances in south Houston, and yet went to Princeton and got a degree, went to New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, and then the ultimate in achievements in the academic world, the D.Phil. [doctor of philosophy] from Oxford. He is an exegete of Scripture; he is a top preacher of the Word; and he has the courage to stand alone,” Patterson said.

“You could not have put together that combination, no matter how smart you are. It took a sovereign, omnipotent God to figure out how to do that and to bring him to [Southern Baptists] at just the right time. It is most remarkable what God has done,” Patterson stated.

In other business, trustees:

— elected Hal Lane of Greenwood, S.C., as trustee chairman and Jim Brown of Olive Branch, Miss., as vice chairman. Penna Dexter of Plano, Texas, was elected secretary of the board. Lane, now in his second stint as an ERLC trustee, said his earlier service was during “some of the most tumultuous history of the Southern Baptist Convention and of this commission’s history as well.” Lane’s first service as trustee began in 1986, during the period when the convention’s “conservative resurgence” helped move the leadership of what is now the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission back to the right. Lane was on the search committee that brought Land to head the commission.

— named President George W. Bush as the 2006 recipient of the John Leland Religious Liberty Award. The issue of soul freedom is a passionate conviction of Bush, Land said. George W. Bush’s second inaugural address was a hymn to religious freedom, Land added, saying the president is a “champion of soul freedom as enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution.” Bush hasn’t kept his feelings on this issue to himself, Land said, recounting that the president personally raised this issue with the leaders of China and Russia.

— awarded Ted Stone the ERLC’s Richard D. Land Distinguished Service Award. Land said he was shocked at Ted Stone’s sudden death July 16 during his fourth walk across America. While Stone’s younger life was ravaged by the use of illicit drugs, he was an “absolutely tireless witness to the power of the Gospel to overcome drug addiction.”

“Stone single-handedly raised the Southern Baptist Convention’s consciousness on this issue,” Land said.

— conducted a mortgage note burning for the ERLC’s offices in Washington, D.C. The property, purchased in the early 1990s, has a book value of approximately $900,000. The converted row house that is the ERLC’s base of operations in Washington is just two blocks from the U.S. Senate office building.

— affirmed a project to research and write the ERLC’s history. “This is a heroic story that needs to be told,” Land told trustees. Jerry Sutton, author of the “Baptist Reformation” and pastor of Two Rivers Baptist Church in Nashville, has indicated his willingness to pen the work, Land reported.

— expressed strong opposition to the use of beverage alcohol by unanimously adopting a trustee-initiated motion in which trustees individually indicated they do not “partake” of alcohol.

— signed off on a $3.125 million budget for the ERLC’s 2006-07 fiscal year, a .5 percent decrease from last year’s budget stemming from a forecast of declining product sales and advertising revenue in the upcoming budget year.

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  • Dwayne Hastings