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NOBTS launches public policy institute

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–At a time when people of faith often are relegated to the sidelines in public policy discussions, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary is launching an Institute for Faith and the Public Square to help reframe the debate.

“The need for a Christian voice in the public square has never been greater than it is today in our pluralistic culture,” said IFPS director Lloyd Harsch, associate professor of church history at NOBTS. “The Judeo-Christian values and ideals upon which this country was founded are no longer assumed but challenged by an increasingly diverse society.”

Harsch believes many people are confused about the role of faith in government and the political process. Religious liberty, a long-held hallmark of Baptist belief, has even been used by some to silence faith-informed voices, he noted.

The institute, announced during a meeting of NOBTS trustees Dec. 7, will explore the role of faith in the development and application of public policy and provide an open-minded academic forum where the concerns of Christians can be discussed in a thoughtful way without intimidation.

NOBTS ethics professor Jeffrey Riley and theology and Islamic studies professor Page Brooks will serve as associate directors of the institute. An IFPS advisory board will include Tommy French, founding pastor emeritus of Jefferson Baptist Church in Baton Rouge and Republican State Central Committee member; Brian Egana, businessman and Democratic State Central Committee member; Mel Jones, director of Bethel Colony drug rehabilitation program and former Louisiana coordinator for Ross Perot’s presidential election bid; Daniel Holcomb, professor of church history at NOBTS; David Crosby, pastor of First Baptist Church in New Orleans and co-founder of the Baptist Crossroads Project; and Warren Jones, pastor of New Salem Baptist Church in New Orleans.

The idea for the institute grew out of Harsch’s own political involvement during a 2007-08 academic year sabbatical that led to the development of a course — the church and political involvement – taught by Harsch and Riley in 2008. The course was designed to coincide with and address issues from the 2008 presidential election. The two taught the class again this fall in conjunction with the nation’s mid-term elections.

The goals of the new institute are far-reaching. The most comprehensive goal, as noted to trustees, is “to apply biblical truth to moral, public policy, and religious liberty issues in order to transform American culture.” To accomplish this goal, the institute will work to establish a network to facilitate Christian interaction on moral and religious liberty issues, host ongoing special events and conferences and consult churches on their efforts to understand their role in the public square. Harsch and his team also will seek to communicate the implications of public policy to the life and ministry of local churches.

On the academic side, the institute will develop graduate- and doctoral-level seminary courses and continuing education programs focused on public policy.

The academic work will help future pastors and church leaders be better prepared for ministry, Harsch said, noting, “I want our students to be aware of the issues they will encounter when they are serving in their local churches.”

Earlier in the fall semester, Harsch hosted an event focused on church property and the law. Lloyd Lunceford, a lawyer, legal scholar and author, spoke on issues involving property law in relation to church polity. Though the institute had not officially organized at the time, Harsch considers Lunceford’s presentation the first event sponsored by IFPS.

A second event, “The Role of Faith-Based Organizations in the Rebuilding of New Orleans,” is planned for April 11, 2011. Harsch said local, state and federal government leaders as well as members of local churches and faith-based ministries will be invited to discuss the “possibilities, pitfalls and practicality” of utilizing government funds.

“There is a growing need to have a place for discussing issues of religious liberty,” Harsch said. “The United States is becoming increasingly hostile to ideas of faith from people of faith. We wanted to provide a place where issues that are important to people of faith from a variety of political perspectives can be discussed in an academic forum and a place where we can do research into those areas.

“[Christians] need to be involved in the political realm because it affects how we live our lives,” Harsch continued. “At the same time, we need to keep the Gospel out there as the means of transforming our culture.”

Future conferences will address the role of faith in the life of the politician, the implications of political involvement and legal issues pertaining to the church, Harsch said, describing the topics as vitally important because the church, government and the law are interacting in more and more areas.

Much of the funding for the institute will come through private donations. For more information about the Institute for Faith and the Public Square, contact Harsch by telephone at 504-282-4455, ext. 3212, or by e-mail at [email protected]. The institute’s website www.faithandpublicsquare.org, is under construction.
Gary D. Myers is director of public relations at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.