Scandal, war and power shifts in both secular and Baptist politics dominated EthicsDaily.com news coverage in 2006. The Baptist Center for Ethics, meanwhile, celebrated its 15th anniversary with major emphases supporting public education, reducing global poverty and urging Wal-Mart, one of the nation’s largest employers, to model the Golden Rule in the way it treats its employees.
Here are some of the year’s memorable stories, as reported by EthicsDaily.com.
Clergy Sex Scandals
Lonnie Latham, pastor of South Tulsa Baptist Church, resigned as a member of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee after being arrested in a gay prostitution sting in Oklahoma City Jan. 3
The story made national headlines, which made much of the SBC’s strong anti-gay message. It also set the stage for later sex scandals including better-known figures like Rep. Mark Foley, who left Congress after sending lewd e-mails to male pages, and Ted Haggard, who lost his job as head of the National Association of Evangelicals over allegations that he used drugs and consorted with a male prostitute.
Latham’s misdemeanor case could have constitutional implications as well. The ACLU filed a friend-of-the-court brief saying Latham didn’t offer to pay for sex, so it wasn’t prostitution. If sex between consenting adults is legal, as the Supreme Court has ruled, the brief said solicitation of legal activity shouldn’t be a crime.
Representatives of Survivors Network of those Abuse by Priests (SNAP) hand-delivered a letter to SBC leaders Sept. 29 calling on the nation’s second-largest denomination to take action to stop clergy sexual abuse.
Christa Brown, an Austin attorney who was sexually abused decades ago by a Southern Baptist minister while a teenager in a church in Texas, spearheaded the effort. After EthicsDaily.com carried stories about her efforts, others came forward with similar experiences.
In November SNAP called on the Baptist General Convention of Texas to release names of ministers with records of sexual misconduct, including molestation, that are kept in confidential file to help churches evaluate ministerial candidates.
Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis suspended a long-time minister and launched an investigation into allegations of sexual abuse. Bellevue Pastor Steve Gaines waited six months to tell the congregation the man had confessed to moral failure, an act that an assistant district attorney said may have broken a law that requires professionals to report child abuse.
The pastor of Southmont Baptist Church in Denton, Texas, retired after it was reported he ended a lawsuit alleging he sexually abused a teenage girl in the 1980s with a settlement that included a secrecy pact.
Lebanese Baptists Endure, Respond to War
Martin Accad, academic dean at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut, said uncritical support for Israel often leads Americans to an errant reading of the Bible that equates the modern political state of Israel to the Israel of the Bible.
Speaking to students at Belmont University in August, Accad said the 1948 founding of Israel is “theologically insignificant.” He challenged students to move “from a politically biased reading to holistic Bible reading” concerning God’s promises to Israel.
In a Nov. 4 newsletter, Nabil Costa of the Lebanese Baptist Society said Arab Christians have an important role to play in improving relations between the east and west. American Baptist leader Roy Medley, back from a goodwill visit to Lebanon in November, said the group heard several times their presence was important to send the message that “Christians and Americans do not hate Muslims or Arabs.”
EthicsDaily.com also featured a book by American Baptist scholar Lee Ann Snow Flesher exposing faulty theology in the “Left Behind” novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins and countered arguments by John Hagee and Jerry Falwell that current events in the Middle East signal a countdown to Armageddon.
Bloggers Flex Muscle in SBC
An Internet fad showed some political muscle in the Southern Baptist Convention. The International Mission Board tried to silence a dissenting trustee who aired his disagreement with board decisions in a weblog, prompting a network of mostly younger bloggers calling for more openness in convention debate.
The blogging trustee, Wade Burleson of Oklahoma, toyed with allowing his nomination for SBC president, but stepped aside when Frank Page, a relatively unknown South Carolina pastor with a record of strong Cooperative Program support announced his candidacy.
Page won election in Greensboro, N.C., his hometown, in a first-ballot vote over two opponents, both strong supporters of the “conservative resurgence.”
With the battle for the Bible behind, Page said, the biggest struggle facing the SBC now is relevancy.
Robert Parham of the Baptist Center for Ethics said on public radio in June he doubts Page’s election signals a departure from the SBC’s recent “anti-everything” image.
Baptist Financial Scandals Make Headlines
Two former executives of the Baptist Foundation of Arizona were convicted of fraud in July following a six month trial. William Crotts and Thomas Grabinski went to prison for their roles in a Ponzi scheme that defrauded 11,000 investors of more than $550 million. It was one of the largest affinity frauds in history. Former board member Lawrence Dwain Hoover pleaded guilty in September, after being too ill to stand trial. Crotts and Grabinski were sentenced to prison and ordered to pay $159 million in restitution.
In October an internal investigation by the Baptist General Convention of Texas found evidence that up to $1.3 million in church-starting funds were misused. Of 258 churches started in the Rio GrandeValley between 1999 and 2005, the report said, only five are active today. Some of the churches were really home Bible studies, not churches, and some apparently appeared only on paper.
The Christian Index in February wrote an article critical of North American Mission Board President Bob Reccord. Two months later Reccord resigned, after trustees saddled him with “executive level” controls of his leadership. The SBC Executive Committee in September proposed additional controls to ensure that trustee boards exercise “fiscal responsibility” in executive pay and other corporate expenses.
Democrats Find God
Republicans lost control of both houses of Congress in mid-term elections, a setback for the Religious Right. Democrats of faith, meanwhile, spoke up with a new message that GOP doesn’t stand for God’s Only Party.
In January EthicsDaily.com interviewed Rep. James Clyburn, the third ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives, about Christian party members who “walk the walk” who have “decided it’s now time to talk the talk.”
“The Democratic agenda is deeply rooted in faith,” said Clyburn, a minister’s son, “but we have been less effective than we could be in communicating how our moral values guide our policies.”
James Dobson’s Focus on the Family sponsored rallies in several states to help Republicans hold on to majorities in the House and Senate. At an October rally in Nashville, Dobson urged Christians not to let disfavor over the Mark Foley scandal deter them from voting for Republican candidates. Jerry Falwell said Hillary Clinton running for president in 2008 would energize conservative voters more than Satan. Conservative leaders were at first muted in their criticism of handling of the Foley affair, but later turned around to blame the cover-up on gays.
Exit polls suggested scandal, the war in Iraq and dissatisfaction with President Bush tilted voters toward Democrats in the November mid-term elections, but a number of Democrats won races running on a platform supporting stem-cell research, indicating a shift in public opinion on the issue and another setback for the Religious Right.
Robert Parham of the BCE criticized the campaign of Bob Corker, eventual winner of an open Senate seat in Tennessee, for appealing to race to defeat Democratic Congressman Harold Ford. First the campaign used a fund-raising brochure in which Ford’s light-brown complexion appeared darkened in a photo. Just before the election the Republican Party rolled out an ad on Corker’s behalf featuring a blonde white actress portraying a Playboy party girl saying provocatively, “Harold, call me.” Critics called it a thinly veiled appeal to prejudices against black men dating white women.
Banner Year for BCE
A BCE-sponsored Baptist Pastoral Letter Supporting Public Education, issued April 21, pledged support for public schools and to challenge religious voices that “demonize public education.”
The effort prompted one church, Churchland Baptist Church in Chesapeake, Va., to send cookies to more than 30 schools during Teacher Appreciation Week in November and invite educators to a special worship service and luncheon in their honor. A Houston school district, one of the fastest-growing in the nation, honored Ed Hogan, pastor of Jersey Village Baptist Church, with a Friend of Education award, in part for his support of the BCE letter affirming public schools.
In April Robert Parham spoke to the Kentucky Education Association telling educators they “still have friends within the Baptist community” and there are Baptists who “are still committed to the public good in the public square.”
BCE directors honored Parham, the BCE’s founding executive director, at a 15th anniversary celebration in June. Seminary professor Larry McSwain urged theology schools supported by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship to build a Baptist ethic for the 21st century in the tradition of 20th century Baptist ethicists T.B. Maston and Henlee Barnette. The keynote speaker at the event, Bob Edgar of the National Council of Churches, said his organization is “trying to address fear, fundamentalism and Fox television.”
The same week Parham interviewed former Vice President Al Gore about his movie and book An Inconvenient Truth. “How can you glorify God while heaping contempt and destruction on his creation?” Gore asked. “The answer is that you cannot.”
The BCE released a DVD resource “Always…Therefore: The Church’s Challenge of Global Poverty” in partnership with the Baptist World Alliance and other groups. In September the BCE released a pastoral letter supporting the Micah Challenge, an effort by global Christians to hold governments accountable to reduce poverty by half by 2015.
In December BCE partnered with WakeUpWalMart.com to issue a Christmastime pastoral letter challenging the retailer to embrace its responsibility to be a “Golden Rule” company in the way it treats its workers. A television ad released at the same time featured BCE board member Joe Phelps, pastor of Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., asking “Would Jesus Shop at Wal-Mart?” Both Phelps and Parham appeared on national television to discuss the campaign, which even earned mention by Jay Leno in a “Tonight Show” monologue.
British Baptists Rejoice at Release of Hostage in Iraq
British Baptists began 2006 in prayer for British hostage Norman Kember and three fellow Christian Peacemaker Team activists kidnapped Nov. 26 in Iraq.
Captors released a video showing all four hostages alive Jan. 21, but one, American Quaker Tom Fox, was found shot dead on a Baghdad street March 10. After release, Kember attended Harrow Baptist Church in London, where he worshipped more than 40 years, amid controversy, after a military officer said he didn’t properly thank his rescuers. At a Dec. 8 press conference the three surviving former hostages said they forgive their captives and don’t want to see them punished.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.