On Aug. 22, 1980, then Southern Baptist Convention President Bailey Smith offered an off-the-cuff remark that many believe harmed interfaith relations between Jews and Southern Baptists. Speaking at the Religious Roundtable’s National Affairs Briefing in Dallas, Smith proclaimed that God did not hear the prayers of Jews.
“It’s interesting to me at great political battles how you have a Protestant to pray and a Catholic to pray and then you have a Jew to pray,” Smith stated. “With all due respect to those dear people, my friend, God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew. For how in the world can God hear the prayer of a man who says that Jesus Christ is not the true Messiah? It is blasphemy. It may be politically expedient, but no one can pray unless he prays through the name of Jesus Christ.”
Although the remark went little noticed at the time, a few weeks later controversy erupted after it received public attention. Ronald Reagan, then the Republican presidential candidate, who had spoken at the same rally the day before Smith, faced questions about if he agreed with the statement.
“No,” Reagan stated. “Since both the Christian and Judaic religions are based on the same God, the God of Moses, I’m quite sure those prayers are heard. But I guess everyone can make his own interpretation of the Bible, and many individuals have been making differing interpretations for a long time.”
Two state Baptist conventions passed resolutions criticizing the remark and numerous individual Baptists condemned it and urged Smith to apologize. For instance, Glenn Hinson, then professor of church history at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote “An Open Letter to Bailey Smith” in which he argued about the remark: “Such is the stuff of which holocausts are made.”
Smith, however, refused to apologize for his statement. In fact, Smith, who at the time was also the president of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma and pastor of First Southern Baptist Church of Del City, told Baptist Press on Sept. 16, 1980, that his comment was what he “must proclaim” as “a Christian minister.”
“The only prayer I believe God hears from anybody who has been denying Jesus is, ‘Lord, be merciful to me a sinner and save me for Christ’s sake,'” Smith added with a slight adjustment of his earlier remark.
Mike Smith, pastor of First Baptist Church of Murfreesboro, Tenn., told EthicsDaily.com that Bailey Smith’s comment hurt Southern Baptist interfaith efforts.
“I think the remark set back meaningful conversation between Southern Baptists and Jews,” Smith wrote in an email. “It did not have long-term negative impact on interfaith conversations between Jews and other kinds of Baptists. We simply moved on without Southern Baptists.”
“His comment amazed and saddened me,” Mike Smith added. “He seemed not to realize that Jesus was a first-century Jew, as were all of his earliest followers. Certainly, God heard their prayers. In my opinion, he also misunderstood the relationship between God and all humanity. Whatever else might be said, the Bible teaches that we are made in the image of God. Jesus compared God to a loving parent, who stands ever ready to listen to his children. Such a God hears the prayers of anyone.”
Mike Smith co-wrote the book “Let Us Break Bread Together: A Passover Haggadah for Christians” with Rabbi Rami Shapiro. Both men also appeared in the EthicsDaily.com documentary “Good Will for the Common Good: Nurturing Baptists’ Relationships with Jews.”
The film included interviews with other Baptist and Jewish leaders, as well as highlights from a 2004 EthicsDaily.com luncheon on the topic. About 500 people attended the event designed to spark “a new era” in relationships between the two faith groups.
Despite the harm Bailey Smith’s comment did to interfaith relationships, other Southern Baptist leaders have rhetorically followed his lead in the 30 years since he offered his remark.
In 2003, Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, referred to Judaism as a “deadly tumor.”
In 2008, Richard Land, head of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, used an obscene Jewish slur to attack Jewish U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer. Land later claimed ignorance about the term’s meaning.
The Anti-Defamation League criticized the SBC in 2005 for supporting “messianic” fellowship, an act the ADL saw as “insulting, disgraceful and dangerous.” The ADL also criticized Land last year for use of Nazi references during comments about healthcare reform. Land apologized to the ADL, but later backed away from his pledge not to repeat the analogy.
Thirty years after Bailey Smith’s remark harmed Southern Baptist interfaith efforts with Jews, many Southern Baptist leaders are targeting a new religious group – Muslims. In recent weeks, Land, Mohler, Franklin Graham, First Baptist Church of Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress and others have spoken out against a proposed Islamic center in New York City.
Robert Parham, executive director of EthicsDaily.com, argued that Baptist must stand up for religious liberty rights of Muslims. He also noted that EthicsDaily.com is working to build relationships with Muslims instead of demonizing them.
“Regrettably today, too many efforts are under way to block and to discourage people of Islamic faith from their free exercise of religion,” Parham wrote. “Such efforts are part of the larger cultural narrative that says Christianity and Islam are at war with each other. Challenging that negative narrative is a moral obligation for Baptists and other Christians.”
Earlier this year, the EthicsDaily.com documentary “Different Books, Common Word: Baptists and Muslims,” which aired on ABC TV stations across the nation, highlighted the interfaith relationship-building efforts of several Baptist and Muslims leaders. The EthicsDaily.com luncheon in June of this year also focused on this topic, with about 300 people present.
Mike Smith, who has defended Muslims under attack for attempting to build a mosque in Murfreesboro, told EthicsDaily.com that Bailey Smith’s comment 30 years ago and the attacks on Muslims today “have some things in common: fear, tribalism and departure from the way of Jesus.”
Brian Kaylor is a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.
Brian Kaylor is editor and president of Word&Way, associate director of Churchnet, and a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.