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Combining church and state is like mixing ice cream and horse manure, according to noted Baptist preacher and author Tony Campolo.

“It doesn’t harm the manure,” Campolo said, “but it sure fouls up the ice cream.”

As a long-time Southern Baptist, I believe the denomination has given up on ice cream and is intent on saving the world with horse manure.

If our leaders can enforce enough rules within the church, pass enough moral laws outside the church and use Christianity to promote a political party, they apparently believe they can force the world into becoming a holy place.

If you step in horse manure, however, you’re not likely to leave a scoop of Ben & Jerry’s in your tracks.

And if you put your hope in the ruthlessness of politics, you’re more likely to be known for your methods than your message.

In the 25 years since fundamentalists used church politics to seize control of the denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention has gained a reputation for being tumultuous, self-righteous, judgmental and downright mean. And considering the lackluster growth in membership in that time span, you could argue that the world is no longer listening to the message.

At the annual SBC gathering in Indianapolis, the fundamentalists congratulated themselves on the silver anniversary of their coup.

Meanwhile many members–most who consider themselves conservatives–were finally talking.

One issue that drew attention was a failed measure to condemn “Godless” public schools and recommend putting students into private or home schools. The complete nuttiness of that proposal should be enough to alarm most members about the direction of the church.

Another issue that drew attention was the denomination’s pullout from the Baptist World Alliance, an organization that unites most Baptist groups from different countries.

A denominational bureaucracy that operates a system of funding called the Cooperative Program clearly doesn’t intend to cooperate with anyone outside its narrow hallways.

I wonder how much longer the intolerant can tolerate each other. Some of the fundamentalists are apparently beginning to worry about the same thing.

“I am concerned … that we will develop a censorious, exclusivist, intolerant spirit,” SBC Executive Committee President Morris Chapman warned recently. “If this occurs, we will be the poorer for it.”

Baptists didn’t thrive this many years by mixing horse manure and ice cream. They didn’t thrive by depending on creeds to define what church members and workers should believe. They didn’t grow into the largest Protestant group by sacrificing grace, love and mercy for power.

About 2,000 years ago, another group of religious leaders used rules, laws and politics to dominate their little world. They succeeded in the short term, but in the long run message outlived method.

Scott Morris is city editor of the Decatur Daily in Decatur, Ala., and a member of Lebanon Baptist Church in Falkville, Ala. This column appeared in the newspaper June 27 and is used here with permission.

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