Three Baptist Democrats are “doers of the word,” what Jesus’ brother James commended Christians to be.
James wrote, “Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.”
When these three Democrats are compared with their three Republican counterparts, one is left to wonder what explains the stark differences. Is it party affiliation? Is educational opportunity? Is it geography? Why do some politicians have a zeal for being doers of the word for the common good and others don’t?
Neither Ronald Reagan, George Bush nor Dan Quayle can be accused of being doers of the word, drum majors for justice, ambassadors of reconciliation, when they became former office holders.
Yes, Dan Quayle does a golf charity. George Herbert Walker Bush is involved with Bill Clinton in the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund. Ronald Reagan disclosed little record of caring about the public good after he left office.
Of course, none of these men had Baptist roots. Perhaps religious affiliation best explains why some faith-based politicians are doers of the word and others are not.
No one can dispute that Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Al Gore, all Baptist Democrats, have sterling records of post-office public service. It is likely that their specific faith tradition—with the centrality of the Bible and the primacy of mission action— explains their sense of moral obligation more than their partisan affiliation.
What makes Carter, Clinton and Gore different is that they are heirs of the best of the Baptist tradition that is morally encoded with a need to do love neighbor and to care for the least of those among us. It is part of what is learned in Sunday school Bible study, absorbed in worship services, picked up in the fellowship.
The best known president for public service is Jimmy Carter, who made famous Habitat for Humanity when he picked up a hammer to work with low-income families in 1984 to renovate a building in New York City.
Interestingly, Millard and Linda Fuller founded Habitat International the year Carter was elected president. They had actually began years earlier building homes with the poor out of their spiritual growth at Koinonia Farms, a community in rural Georgia started by Southern Baptist biblical scholar and social prophet Clarence Jordan.
Carter’s work with the poor was initially ridiculed before it became so cool that Republican Party leaders finally got on the bandwagon.
But Carter’s post-presidential commitment to justice was always more than Habitat. Rather than build a presidential center for only administrative papers and visitors, the Carter Center became an action pad for eradicating river blindness, strengthening democracies, resolving conflicts and advancing human rights.
So successful was his work that he won the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize as a life time achievement award, one of only two Georgia Baptists receiving that high honor. The other was Martin Luther King, Jr.
Clinton and Gore follow Carter’s long-standing moral witness and work for the common good, albeit with different issues.
When Clinton left the presidency, he reportedly looked at what Carter was doing. Clinton, too, wanted to have a meaningful impact. He setup the Clinton Foundation as a vehicle for addressing worldwide poverty with a special commitment to fight HIV/AIDS. He prioritized racial and reconciliation work.
As for Al Gore, he, too, has a missionary zeal for social change. His globally recognized issue is global warming. Largely unrecognized is that he roots his environmental concern in the Baptist faith.
“I was taught in Sunday school about the purpose of life,” Gore said in an interview with EthicsDaily.com. “I didn’t ever get a single lesson about the purpose of life at Harvard University or prep school I went to. But I learned about the purpose of life in Sunday school. And I was taught that the purpose of life is to glorify God.”
“How can you glorify God while heaping contempt and destruction on God’s creation?” he asked. “The answer is that you cannot.”
“If you believe in the teaching ‘whatever you do to the least of these you do unto me,’ the least of these include those who are powerless to defend themselves against harmful actions at our hands motivated by careless greed,” said Gore, before the Nashville screening of “An Inconvenient Truth.”
On Sunday evening, Gore’s documentary about climate change won two Oscars.
“My fellow Americans, people all over the world, we need to solve the climate crisis,” said Gore. “It’s not a political issue, it’s a moral issue. We have everything we need to get started, with the possible exception of the will to act. That’s a renewable resource. Let’s renew it.”
Doers of the word have a will to act for the common good. Gore certainly does. Clinton does. Carter does.
What’s the taproot of their will to act for the common good? Is it political affiliation or education? Or is it faith?
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.