Alabama Gov. Bob Riley’s $1.2 billion tax proposal, designed to improve the state’s educational system and to shift tax burdens away from the poor, was soundly defeated last month by a large majority of Alabama voters. Even more surprising to some was how the Republican governor, a born-again Christian, could have become such a bold advocate of progressive tax reform.
Riley declared that his proposal came as a result of reading the Bible. In an interview with The Washington Post, Riley said, “When I read the New Testament, there are three things we’re asked to do: That’s love God, love each other and take care of the least among us.”
Perhaps too many of us have bought into the myth that any Christian reading the Bible from a conservative theological point of view will inevitably adopt conservative social and political positions. While this may often be the case, Baptist politicians have seldom been cut from the same bolt of political cloth.
One of the best examples is Brooks Hays, a former Arkansas congressman and president of the Southern Baptist Convention, who is remembered this month on the 22nd anniversary of his death.
Hays moved from his native Arizona to the state of Arkansas when he was 5 years old, and his family began attending First Baptist Church, Russellville. His conservative religious instruction within the life of that congregation was perhaps typical of the times, and he later served the church as a deacon, beginning in 1923.
Yet for Hays, the influence of conservative teaching and preaching within a Southern Baptist congregation led naturally to progressive social and political views. As a lawyer and an eight-term congressman from the Fifth District of Arkansas, Hays became both an expert in foreign affairs and a champion of civil rights, human justice and the poor.
After opposing Gov. Orval Faubus during the 1957 desegregation crisis in Little Rock, Hays was defeated for reelection and replaced by an avowed segregationist. Later, he served as a special assistant to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.
In a book entitled The Baptist Way of Life, which he co-authored with John E. Steely, Hays reflected upon the influence of growing up as a traditional Baptist: “I am under a heavy debt for the congregation’s instruction and its demonstrations in democratic government. It impressed me with the need for putting moral content into the political programs to which I would later attach myself. The precious values bound up in the life of every individual were first held before me in that congregation.”
An example from the other side of the political aisle is Mark Hatfield of Oregon, who served as both governor of his state and a five-term U.S. senator during a 47-year career in public service. A deeply religious man, Hatfield is a long-time Baptist and a member of First Baptist Church of Portland.
Born in Dallas, Ore., in 1922, Hatfield’s father and mother worked modest jobs as a railroad blacksmith and a schoolteacher. His early religious training appears to have been rather conventional. During World War II, Hatfield joined the U.S. Navy and saw action at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and at the end of the war was one of the first service personnel to enter Hiroshima after the atomic bombing.
Yet, the more traditional aspects of Hatfield’s background belie a more progressive, even liberal, political agenda. Hatfield was elected to the Senate in 1966 as an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War, and since that time has repeatedly criticized the use of a civil religion to bless warfare and violence. By contrast, he has said that authentic faith is found in the “biblical God of justice and righteousness who is revealed in the Scriptures and in the person of Jesus Christ.”
An ardent advocate of restraint in military spending and involvement abroad, Hatfield is a war hero who happily wears the label of “Baptist peacemaker.” In a March, 1997 interview he said: “We don’t look at the causes of conflict: hunger, militarism, racism. All of these things are part of the cause. I would say send in the troops, but send in scientists, agriculturalists, teachers, nurses, and address the health, and the food, and the housing, and the people needs… and we’d be able to reduce the conflict.”
Brooks Hays and Mark Hatfield, one a Democrat and the other a Republican, both make the point that traditional theology can lead to a surprisingly progressive social platform on the part of Baptist politicians. More than few other examples could be mentioned, including Jimmy Carter, Al Gore and Bill Clinton.
Whether the subject is theology or politics, Baptists rarely have been cut from the same bolt of cloth.
John M. Finley is senior minister of First Baptist Church, Savannah, Ga.