NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)– Southern Baptist leaders have countered charges made by the White House that the Southern Baptist Convention is perpetuating religious hatred through its evangelism efforts.
“Apparently, because the president has very few convictions, he harbors deep resentment against those who do,” said SBC President Paige Patterson, who also is president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Wake Forest, N.C.
“I would say that the president or his press secretary or both have once again demonstrated that the one thing for which they have no regard is truth,” Patterson said in response to a Dec. 16 press briefing by President Clinton’s press secretary, Joe Lockhart.
Lockhart was asked a question about the SBC’s efforts in praying for and sharing the gospel with Hindus, Jews and Muslims. “I think the President has made very clear his view from any quarter, no matter what quarter it comes from, his views on religious tolerance, and how one of the greatest challenges going into the next century is dealing with intolerance, dealing with ethnic and religious hatred, and coming to grips with the long-held resentments between religions,” Lockhart said.
“So I think he’s [Clinton] been very clear in his opposition to whatever organization, including the Southern Baptist, that perpetuate ancient religious hatred,” Clinton’s press secretary added.
Morris H. Chapman, president of the SBC’s Executive Committee, disagreed. “Baptists do not now, nor have we ever, practiced persecution against people of other faiths, or of no faith at all. The assertion that evangelism is morally equivalent to what the White House spokesman calls ‘ancient religious hatred’ betrays a deep disregard for historic Christian faith propositions. It is nothing less than a clumsy attempt to intimidate — a bullying tactic. It is itself hate speech, pure and simple.”
Patterson, in countering Lockhart’s remarks, cited the persecution of Christian believers sanctioned by India’s government. “Furthermore,” Patterson said, “they make no comment about the fact that they know very well Baptists have been in the past, and continue to be in the present, the most ardent advocates of absolute religious liberty.”
Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said he was “appalled that someone in as important position as a presidential press secretary would make the kind of outrageous, inflammatory, and erroneous comments as those made by Lockhart.”
“To assert that practicing obedience to one’s faith by witnessing to those of other faiths is intolerance is either stupifyingly ignorant or malicious misrepresentation,” Land said. “Either alternative renders him unfit to serve in such an important position.”
Said Chapman, “We have very serious objections to the remarks of the White House. They give the strong appearance of governmental officials presuming to dictate to people of faith which religious tenets they may believe and practice. It is the right of every person to agree or disagree with the internal doctrines of Christianity, but we believe for any governmental office to endeavor to pressure Christians to change their doctrines or practices is improper and reprehensible.”
Chapman went on to object to Lockhart’s presupposition that the government has legitimate, constituted authority to arbitrate the doctrinal, theological and religious teachings of the Southern Baptist Convention. “The idea that the president or any other governmental official is to pass judgement on religious questions is unconstitutional, and profoundly wrongheaded. It is a chilling throught that any elected government official or appointed bureaucrat should champion, or even accept such an absurd notion.”
Chapman confirmed that Southern Baptists have been urged to pray for Hindu people during Divali, the twelve day Hindu festival of lights. “We believe Holy Scripture compels us to pray for all people. Religion in general, and Christianity in particular, holds to specific truth claims. If these truth claims are true, as we believe, then it follows that they are to be disseminated as broadly as possible,” Chapman noted. “That is the essence of orthodox, or biblical, Christianity.”