Sen. Jesse Helms, an icon of conservative politics who died Friday of natural causes, lay in state at a decidedly moderate Baptist church he attended faithfully for more than 30 years.
On Monday people filed in to Hayes Barton Baptist Church in Raleigh, N.C., to pay respects to Helms, 86, a controversial five-term senator and former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. A local TV station carried live video of his flag-draped casket flanked by state troopers in front of the church’s pulpit all day on its Web site.
Today’s funeral services were also scheduled at the church, with Associate Pastor Tom Bodkin presiding.
Though regarded a hero by many in the Religious Right, Helms’ own congregation resisted the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention. Hayes Barton is aligned with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a moderate breakaway group. It has women deacons and uses curriculum published by the Baptist Center for Ethics.
A 1995 Commonweal article described it as “a church where the theology is as moderate and mainstream as its red-brick, tall-steeple architecture.”
A firebrand politician whose views on race relations and social issues often divided Americans, Helms reportedly checked his politics at the door when he was at church, and he rarely missed a Sunday unless he was out of town.
“He was just a regular member here,” church member Henry Warren told WRAL-TV. “There was no politics involved…. He was just who he was.”
Fellow church member Wesley Williams said he often disagreed with Helms on political matters but always respected the courage of his convictions. “He was a good senator and a good citizen and I think he should be remembered in that manner,” Williams said.
Julia Ledford, associate pastor at Hayes Barton, said staff members were following strict protocol regarding public comments about Helms out of respect for his family. She referred an e-mail request for comment to Barbara Jean Warren, chair of the church’s diaconate, who had not responded by the time this story was posted.
Helms’ switch to the Republican Party in 1970 paved the way for others to follow suit and contributed to the Reagan Revolution that swept Southern Baptist President Jimmy Carter from office in 1980. He is best known for his opposition to the Voting Rights Act and establishment of a Martin Luther King holiday, and for campaign appeals to racial tensions in the post-1960s South.
Helms is also credited with influencing the “conservative resurgence” in the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1980s and early 1990s through aides and friends who were active in the takeover movement.
Helms’ one-time aide Sam Currin, who went on to serve as a U.S. attorney and chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party, served on the SBC Public Affairs Committee, at the time the Southern Baptist representatives of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs. Eventually the SBC defunded the BJC and transferred the portfolio for religious liberty concerns to what is now called the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
Currin, also a member of Hayes Barton, went to prison in 2007 after pleading guilty to federal charges of money laundering, obstructing an investigation and interfering with workings of the IRS.
Helms attended Baptist-affiliated Wingate Junior College and Wake Forest College but did not graduate. Wingate University later awarded him an honorary doctorate. So did Campbell University and Bob Jones University.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.