Racism is racism. Sexism is sexism. Wrong is wrong. Secular hate speech is as wrong as religious hate speech. Liberal untruthfulness is as wrong as conservative untruthfulness. Yet human nature compels us to rationalize, to justify and to defend our dehumanizing action and beliefs, and those of our friends, those on our side.

The Christian Right was quick to demonize President Bill Clinton for his wrongful behavior in the White House, but slow and softly spoken about the adultery of a string of House Republican leaders. One Southern Baptist leader fired off statements condemning pro-gay stances of the Clinton administration, but remained strangely silent about similar actions by the Bush administration. The same leader trashes Clinton to this day, but shares the platform with Newt Gingrich.

We tolerate our own side and are intolerant about the other side. We advocate one set of rules for our group and another for the other group.

While most of us can smell a political or personal double standard, we are less likely to recognize another form of the two-standard approach. We speak abstractly about high moral standards and refuse to apply concretely those standards in real time to real situations.

The double standard of abstraction and application surfaced in Brian Kaylor’s news story about the Missouri Baptist Convention and the Confederate flag.

Kaylor, communications specialist with the Baptist General Convention of Missouri, wrote about the editor of the MBC’s in-house publication who has a book that labels the Confederate flag a Christian symbol.

In his 1997 book, Embattled Banner: A Reasonable Defense of the Confederate Battle Flag, editor Don Hinkle calls flag critics “malcontents and bigots.” He labels African-Americans opposed to the Confederate flag a “mob” and accuses the NAACP of whipping “blacks into an emotional tizzy” against the flag. He calls attacks on the flag “cultural genocide.”

Hinkle’s book cover shows an angelic child holding a rose and Confederate flags with a larger flag behind her.

The MBC interim executive director condemned that flag in an early March column, saying that it “depicts deep-rooted racial bigotry and hatred.”

David Tolliver rightly wrote: “I am neither pleased nor proud when I see that flag. The Confederate flag represents a dark time in the history of our country. The Confederate flag represents hate.”

Tolliver has expressed a clear and strong moral standard about that flag. But is he speaking abstractly or directly to Hinkle? What is the concrete application of Tolliver’s position? How does he move from talk to walk? Do he, his board and member churches address Hinkle’s wrongful position?

Is Tolliver’s criticism of the Confederate flag similar to the praise heaped on Rosa Parks in Baptist Press the day after she died ”words without moral weight?

When it counted, white Baptist leaders were silent about Parks’ sacrifice and mostly unsupportive of the civil rights movement. When she died, leaders called her “a towering figure during the civil rights period.”

Or is the situation akin to what happened when a Southern Baptist agency trustee in 1988 called Martin Luther King a fraud and said that apartheid “doesn’t exist anymore, and it was beneficial when it did.”

Trustee Curtis Caine said, “We have to be very careful that we don’t get caught up in the endorsement of–quote ‘the reverend,’ unquote–Martin Luther King.”

When it mattered, some ministers criticized his words. Then, Southern Baptists re-elected him to a second term on that agency’s board.

Rallies and services will be held this weekend across the nation, marking the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, on April 4, 1968.

Many Baptists are committed to racial reconciliation, equality and justice, especially in the abstract. What is the quality of our application in real time? Do our commitments have a moral weightiness to building the beloved community about which King preached?

Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.

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