NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–The power of image can be great especially when it comes to the stereotypes commonly associated with religious people. No place is so full of journalistic fodder as the exhibit hall of any major religious convention, but this is especially so with the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention.
The evangelical machine that is the SBC revved to full throttle at the convention’s annual meeting last week in Nashville. Walking through the exhibit hall is a study in the various perspectives that make up what is, for many, a denomination of results. Perhaps no other denomination is so concerned with the bottom line, which is “a good thing,” said Phil Newton, pastor of South Woods Baptist Church in Memphis, Tenn., “if seen properly with careful biblical scrutiny.”
“I’m never opposed to growth and the expansion of the church of Jesus Christ,” Newton said. “My only concern with all of this is the integrity of our numbers and our way of reporting all that we do.” Such a comment reflects the great diversity of opinions within the SBC regarding exactly what the convention is or should do. And perhaps there is no better vantage point from which to sample that diversity than standing near the iVoteValues truck parked at the booth of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the SBC’s public policy entity.
The voting power of Southern Baptists is well known if little understood. Howard Dean recently made news when he stated that the Republican Party was “the white Christian party,” but many of those who attended the SBC in Nashville would not heartily agree with that statement. Most of those interviewed held the same convictions about certain issues: abortion should be banned, marriage should be defended and care for the terminally ill should be maintained. However, when questioned as to what exactly fueled their vote in the past election and why, the answers were diverse and somewhat surprising.
Scott Slayton, 27, pastor of First Baptist Church in Parrish, Ala., represented a viewpoint that is a typical stereotype the media applies to evangelicals, remarking that he, for the most part, was a one-issue voter.
“Abortion for me is something which is very important because I believe that every human being is created in the image of God,” Slayton said. “Because of this fact, every person who is conceived has the right to be born into the world. This is basic in my thinking. Every person is responsible for their choices, but when a child is conceived in the womb, the responsibility to see that baby to term is a right which should be guaranteed by law.”
Slayton’s position is exactly what one might expect a young Southern Baptist pastor in a predominantly rural area to say if the pundits of the mainstream media are to be believed. Yet he goes on to discuss the theological foundations for why he believes as he does, systematically laying out the specific doctrines of the Bible which shape his worldview. And he emphasizes that, for him, this is not a partisan issue.
Few social commentators, however, will listen beyond the stereotype. One wonders if the average pro-abortion voter could defend their beliefs so cogently.
Steve McCoy, 32, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Woodstock, Ill., who also writes a weblog sharing his perspective with a cadre of what has come to be known as young leaders within the SBC, said that while abortion is important to him, he, unlike Slayton, is not a one-issue voter.
“I don’t think Jesus would be a one-issue voter,” McCoy said. “I try to look at voting through a full biblical worldview, and that’s bigger than one issue for me. Yes, I voted for the same people others would likely think I voted for, but I did so this past election for an entirely different reason than I did in previous elections. During the past two years, I looked at my vote from a different perspective.”
McCoy said he is concerned about the “oppressed people” of his community, and he is leading his church to take intentional steps to reach out to those in the large Hispanic community just across the street from his church building.
“Just this week a group of our leadership is planning a parents’ night out for the families in our community who seldom have time alone together,” McCoy said. “We are concerned for them, and we feel this is a way we can break down barriers in hopes of reaching them for Christ.”
In Illinois, McCoy serves in somewhat of a fledgling area of outreach for the SBC, and he often struggles to overcome the caricature of being a Southern Baptist. Many of the people McCoy meets on the street in his community view the SBC as “the group who is known more for their opposition to homosexuality than for anything else.” For him, this is a problem which must be overcome to reach people for Christ. “I really appreciated the video the ERLC showed at the convention about homosexuality because it wasn’t scolding the culture, but actually showing how to redeem it for God’s glory.”
As for the much-lauded political power of the convention and evangelicals in general, many younger pastors who serve in the Deep South voiced concern that political activism must be framed in terms of biblical preaching about the doctrines of the Bible. If not, then the church will become overly politicized, to the point that the Gospel of Christ actually becomes obscured.
“I seek to address political issues when they are found in the text of Scripture in which I am preaching,” said Lee Tankersley, 26, pastor of Cornerstone Community Church in Jackson, Tenn. “If there is an application of the text which bears on a particular political issue, then I am hearty to address it. Caution must be made when we fail to build the appropriate hermeneutical bridge to show how something addressed to Jeremiah is directly applicable to modern-day America…. [T]he problem we face when confronting social issues [is that] we must make sure they are grounded in the text, or else we come off sounding purely political.”
Ray Van Neste, Tankersley’s professor and mentor in college agreed. Van Neste, 35, serves as the director of the R.C. Ryan Center for Biblical Studies and assistant professor of Christian studies at Union University in Jackson, Tenn. “Our lack of a biblical theology, that is understanding how the Bible fits together, seriously distorts our ability to speak to cultural and political issues,” said Van Neste, emphasizing the critical need for pastors and others involved in Christian service to work hard at making an impact through their preaching as they study Scripture week in and week out. “This is the way that our culture will be impacted for Christ, and then people will not only know how we vote, but why we vote the way we do.”
Many lifelong Southern Baptists echoed the same sentiments as younger members of the denomination. Former SBC Executive Committee member Scott Humphrey of Alexandria, Va., stated, “I fear that my church has very little impact in our community for no other reason than we are unable to actually connect the Bible to the issues of the day in a manner that is truly spiritual and not simply political. Don’t get me wrong. I’m for being active in political life, but unless the church is taught better how to teach Christian principles to a congregation based on the Bible, we are headed for disaster.”
Humphrey, 73, has been a member of the historic First Baptist Church in Alexandria, Va., for more than 60 years. “I trusted Christ and joined the church on April 9, 1941, and I have never seen the church as a whole -– not just my own church — so weak,” he lamented.
Humphrey always encouraged people in his church to get involved in local groups who seek the betterment of the community. “Get active in the PTA, the local school board and the work of government in town. If we abandon everything to those opposed to our positions, then we have no right to complain when things fall apart.” When asked why he thought the church was losing ground in spite of the fact that the 2004 elections were being heralded as a great gain for evangelicals, Humphrey remarked, “Unless we return to teaching doctrine in our churches we are headed for a crash in our culture because our voting patterns hold only as long as our belief in what the Bible actually says is taught in our churches. When we are biblically illiterate as many in the younger generations are, we will never be able to vote in candidates to do what only the church can do. After all, the government, in many ways, is a reflection of the people who are voting. And the government is not authorized in Scripture to function as a church”
Southern Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr. addressed this very concern in his annual seminary report to the convention when he stated that the most important thing the Southern Baptist Convention could do in this age of moral confusion is to make sure that the young people of today would not be able to say, “Whatever,” to matters of Christian doctrine. For him and perhaps for all Southern Baptists, it is not simply about votes and raw partisan politics, but biblical values after all.
Douglas Baker is a writer who lives and works in Washington, D.C.