Moral relativism and indifference surface with a pointed clarity in Southern Baptist life in the case of Bernie Ebbers, a member of Easthaven Baptist Church, outside of Jackson, Miss.
Ebbers, the 63-year-old former CEO of Worldcom, a telecommunication giant, was sentenced this week to 25 years in federal prison for what a Jackson Clarion-Ledger editorial called “the worst business fraud in history.”
His accounting fraud exceeded $11 billion, resulted in the nation’s biggest bankruptcy, cost thousands of employees their jobs and wiped out the retirement savings and investments of countless trusting investors.
“Although I recognize … this is likely to be a life sentence for Mr. Ebbers, I find anything else would not reflect the seriousness of the crime,” said U.S. District Judge Barbara S. Jones.
“Mr. Ebbers was the instigator in this fraud,” said the judge, who will recommend that he serve his sentence in a low-security, federal prison in Yazoo City, Miss., near his home in Brookhaven.
The judge said that Ebbers’ financial statements “deprived investors of their money. They might have made different decisions had they know the truth.”
Contrast the jury’s decision and the judge’s assessment with the attitude of Southern Baptist leaders.
“We haven’t done anything on Ebbers,” responded William Perkins, editor of Mississippi’s Baptist Record, to an email inquiry from EthicsDaily.com’s managing editor.
“I just haven’t seen the need to give the story a lot of coverage when weighed against the pressing space needs under which we labor every week—the classic editor’s dilemma of too much news and too little space,” wrote Perkins.
Jim Futral, executive director-treasurer of the Mississippi Baptist Convention, joined 171 other Ebbers supporters as character witnesses, asking the judge for a lighter prison sentence late last week.
According to the Clarion-Ledger, character letters helped to reduce his sentence term by five years.
Futral did not respond to a request by EthicsDaily.com for a copy of his letter to the court and information about Ebbers’ financial support for Baptist organizations.
But according to a news report, Futral wrote to the court that Ebbers “has been generous and quietly helpful behind the scenes to make a difference in thousands of lives.”
“The mission work, the child-care services and the Christian institutions of higher learning have been all recipients of his generosity with no request or thought of personal gain,” wrote Futral.
According to the Washington Post, Bailey Smith, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, said that he had “never met a more impressive person” than Ebbers, even though he has met three presidents.
Lee Royce, president of Mississippi College, told EthicsDaily.com that Ebbers served on the school’s board of trustees from 1994-2001, chaired the college’s $100 million fund-raising campaign and was the board vice chair in 1999 but would not answer a question about whether he wrote a letter on Ebbers’ behalf.
“Whether I wrote a letter or not to the Court is not a matter of public concern,” replied Royce.
“Worst business fraud in history,” wrote the Clarion-Ledger.
Ebbers’ character defense of “he’s a good Christian man” began in July 2002, when his Mississippi-based corporation ran aground.
“I just want you to know you aren’t going to church with a crook,” he said after he walked the aisle of his church at the end of a morning worship service.
“I don’t know what the situation is with all that has been reported. I don’t know what all is going to happen or what mistakes have been made,” he told fellow church members, according to the Wall Street Journal. “No one will find me to have knowingly committed fraud.”
Easthaven church members gave him a standing ovation.
At the time that Ebbers made his character defense in church, EthicsDaily.com posted two articles titled “Where Do Worldcom Execs Go to Church?” and “What Responsibility Do Churches Have for Worldcom?”.
The first questioned if churches made a difference in the behavior of corporate leaders. The second expressed concern about the individualization and privatization of Christianity, pointing out that evangelicals generally skirt a moral critique of the American market system.
Did Baptist leaders fail Ebbers with their failure to teach ethics in church and critique corporate America in their sermons?
Does the lack of critical commentary from Baptist leaders about Ebbers now, and their willingness to be character witnesses, suggest that money from wealthy members buys moral relativism and indifference from religious leaders?
It sure looks that way.
Robert Parham is the executive director of the BaptistCenter for Ethics.