WASHINGTON (BP)–The director of President Bush’s new faith-based initiatives office apologized to the head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission for remarks categorizing evangelical Christians as insensitive to the needs of the poor.
John DiIulio, director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives, said he was not referring to Southern Baptists in a March 7 speech that rankled many evangelicals with his characterizations of parachurch organizations.
“He apologized for his statement,” said Richard Land, president of the ERLC. “He said he didn’t have Southern Baptists in mind and he was aware of much of what we are doing to assist the poor.”
The one-and-a-half-hour meeting was “a very frank and detailed and wide-ranging discussion,” Land said. “We presented him with a summary of all the things Southern Baptists are doing at the national level, the state level and local level in terms of urban and social ministries.”
The 14-page document included a report that noted:
— The Southern Baptist Convention has churches that worship in 113 languages every Sunday in the United States.
— More than 14 percent of the SBC’s congregations are non-Anglo.
— Southern Baptists contributed more than $9.6 million to the SBC World Hunger Fund and general relief funds.
— In November 2000, the North American Mission Board signed a national letter of agreement with the American Red Cross to continue a longstanding partnership in disaster relief between the agencies.
— In church and community ministries, 663 refugees from more than 15 countries have been assisted in their resettlement process.
— Southern Baptist “World Changers” volunteers have rehabilitated more than 6,000 homes since 1990.
DiIulio’s March 7 comments included a response to concerns expressed recently by conservative evangelical leaders about a portion of President Bush’s faith-based initiatives program. Although DiIulio did not name them, Land, Baptist pastor and Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell, and Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson have voiced reservations, including fears the program could lead to government interference that would harm churches’ freedom and spiritual vitality.
In his speech, DiIulio said such concerns are understandable and those who hold them “ought simply to opt out,” according to a copy of the speech provided by the White House.
“It’s fine to fret about ‘hijacked faith,’ but to many brothers and sisters who are desperately ministering to the needs of those who the rest of us in this prosperous society have left behind, such frets would persuade more and rankle less if they were backed by real human and financial help,” DiIulio said.
There are “many slippery slopes in a faith life, like the one-way slopes to the suburbs and away from out-of-sight, out-of-mind human suffering and unmet social needs,” he said.
“In particular, compared to predominantly ex-urban, white evangelical churches, urban African-American and Latino faith communities have benevolent traditions and histories that make them generally more dedicated to community-serving missions and generally more confident about engaging public and secular partners in achieving those missions without enervating their spiritual identities or religious characters,” DiIulio said. “With all due respect, and in all good fellowship, predominantly white, ex-urban evangelical and national parachurch leaders should be careful not to presume to speak for any persons other than themselves and their own churches.”
“With all due respect,” Land countered in a March 9 interview, “his criticism of his critics would persuade more and rankle us a little less if he knew more about us. For instance, he is evidently unaware that the Southern Baptist Convention runs the second-largest disaster relief program in America behind the Red Cross and we contribute millions of dollars annually to hunger relief both at home and abroad and we are planting new churches in urban areas every day of the week all across the nation. This is not to mention the tens of thousands of community outreach programs conducted by local churches and local associations and state conventions.”
Land also cited the North American Mission Board’s World Changers program, which rehabilitates houses across the country, and the Woman’s Missionary Union’s Christian Women’s Job Corps job-training program that helps many enter the workforce. In addition, NAMB helps underwrite almost 90 inner-city ministry centers.
He added, “We are not Johnny-come-latelys to an understanding that government is most often not a friend of religion. Baptists have a 300-year history of believing that the state should not fund religion and the state should not interfere with the church’s right to exercise its religious beliefs as it feels led to do without government interference.”
Bush’s plan, announced in late January, is designed to encourage giving to nonprofit organizations that provide social services, as well as enable faith-based and other charities to receive federal funds in their work. He not only established a White House office but centers in five federal departments to remove barriers to religious and other organizations working with government to help the needy. He also has proposed allowing taxpayers who do not itemize to deduct their charitable gifts.