NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Sharp disagreement over society’s most pressing issue surfaced during an appearance by Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, before the Trotter Group, an association of black journalists that meets annually to hear from newsmakers and to discuss issues in the news.
The group, founded by USA Today columnist DeWayne Wickham and others in 1992, is named for William Monroe Trotter (1872-1934), an African American who founded the Boston Guardian as “propaganda against discrimination” and who was an early proponent of non-violent protests.
“Nothing is more urgent in this hour than the church’s involvement in the eradication of poverty,” said Derrick Span, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Community Action Partnership, who appeared on a panel with Land. “Poverty is sinful, and poverty is anti-God. Those who believe in God have no alternative but to be involved in this struggle to eradicate poverty.”
Span described poverty as “the new civil rights movement,” insisting that, adding, “If the church is going to be the church, it must pick up the fight.”
The government’s role is to do justice — to “establish just structures and systems that honor the dignity of life of all of its citizens,” Span said. “That has not happened in America. We have systems and structures in this country that have kept people of color on the margins of poverty.”
A third panelist, Forrest Harris, president of American Baptist College in Nashville, said, “Racism is not only a sin” but is part of “the very system and structures of American society,” and “it creates poverty.”
Harris also spoke of an “agenda of religion,” which promotes a “politicized culture around certain issues that are important to people.” He juxtaposed that “agenda” against the larger purposes of faith, which involve “loving our neighbors as ourselves, dealing with systems and structures that create oppression and poverty” and working against “all forms of gender injustice and gender discrimination that isolates people from community,” he said.
Land, however, disagreed with the assertion that poverty should be the church’s number one issue.
“I don’t think the most damaging issue in this country is poverty, as important as the issue is,” Land said, agreeing that the country needs to work to alleviate poverty and that the government has a measure of responsibility in the effort.
“Yet not a single day has gone by in the last 32 years that I have not personally grieved and prayed for the 4,000 babies — disproportionately African American — who have been aborted,” Land continued. “I believe government has a responsibility to protect life. That includes unborn life. I personally will not rest until they are protected.”
The most dangerous place an American has been over the past 32 years is his or her mother’s womb, Land said, noting there is a 33 percent chance of a child being killed between conception and birth.
Interrupting Land, an unidentified audience member shouted, “Do you expect us to believe that? I can’t believe you can say that with a straight face” that abortion is a more important issue than poverty.
“Poverty is a new form of abortion,” Span interjected. “The difference between the doctor who does an abortion and poverty is that one aborts before the baby is born; the other aborts after the baby is born. “Poverty is a form of violence, of terrorism,” he asserted.
If one is concerned about life, he should be concerned about it “from the womb to the tomb,” Span added. “Otherwise, it is absolutely egregious and sinful to fight for a life to be born and then abandon it to poverty and destruction after it is born.”
Land responded, “I specifically said I wasn’t doing that,” acknowledging, “There are some prudential arguments that we can have about the best way to eliminate poverty.”
DeWayne Wickham of USA Today asked Land if he is “as passionately opposed to infant mortality, the under-funding of Head Start and the death penalty” as he is to abortion.
Wickham said the three issues all “tend to take life away from people.”
Land said, “We are committed to eliminating poverty and the kind of grinding poverty that would be reflected in infant mortality,” while expressing shame that in U.S. law allows a “partially born full-term baby — that could survive if it were just put into an incubator — to be killed.”
“We don’t believe that any human being ought to have the absolute right of life and death over another human being, even its mother,” Land said.
Land said that he, like most Southern Baptists, support the death penalty with certain caveats. “If you are going to support the death penalty then you have to be as supportive of its equitable and just application,” Land said, suggesting it is immoral to support it otherwise. A person is much more likely to be executed if they are poor rather than wealthy, a person of color and a man, he added.
Justice for the poor, Harris emphasized, is the “primal issue” for the church. “It is a global issue. Savage capitalistic structures continue to create misery for two-thirds of the world.” The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina revealed that America has “allowed the issues of poverty to remain constant and deepen in the trenches of an economic system that has not been fair and just to all citizens.” Harris said.
Land agreed about the necessity of concern for the poor, saying, “The Bible tells us to be.”
Land told the journalists he had spent much of his ministry working against pietism — “the idea that the separation of church and state means the separation of religiously informed moral values from public policy and that faith is purely private and personal.”
This was a dominant view in much of the white church in 19th and 20th century,” he said.
He observed that Martin Luther King Jr. invested much effort in trying to get the white church to join in the struggle for civil rights for black Americans, noting that King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was addressed to the white church.
In the letter, which King wrote on scraps of paper in 1963 in a jail cell in Birmingham, Ala., he said he was “greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership” and its general failure to support the civil rights movement.
“I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities,” King wrote, suggesting most white clergymen felt the issues were “social concerns” with which the “gospel has no concern.”
Land praised the role African American churches played “in bearing witness against injustice and immorality in American life.”
In leading the civil rights movement, King was calling Christians “to confront the disconnect between what they said they believed and what they practiced in allowing segregation.”
Citing Stephen Carter’s pivotal work on religion and its place in private and public life, “The Culture of Disbelief,” Land said various elites continue to seek to marginalize and trivialize religious faith, asserting that one’s faith should have no real bearing on public policy.
“If this kind of ethos had been loose in society during the 1950s and 1960s,” he suggested, “it would have crippled the civil rights movement from its very inception.”