Does moral witness by signature really make a difference in the public square?

A common practice is for organizations or coalitions to make public moral pronouncements with a host of signatories. These pronouncements draw media attention, giving the sponsors of the documents a platform from which to say to officials that Christian leaders support whatever it is those statements advocate.

For example, the Evangelical Immigration Table coalition recently issued a statement of principles for immigration reform. Their open letter included a number of signatories.

Some of these signatories appear to have suffered from moral muteness when anti-immigration measures were being hotly pursued in their own states – whether an English-only referendum in Nashville, Tenn., Alabama’s punitive anti-immigration law or other efforts to make the undocumented feel unwelcomed.

Taking a stand for federal action while being silent about local matters lacks courage – and is perhaps duplicitous.

Signing an open letter that folk in one’s own community may never see is a far cry from Martin Luther, who nailed a public statement to the castle door in 1517.

There is public witness. Then, there is “public witness.”

Moral witness by signature is akin to the practice of “resolutionary” Christianity.

Southern Baptist ministers have long voted for resolutions at their annual conventions only to return home where they never tell their congregations about the resolution.

They take a moral stance in the safety of the herd far away from the ranch, but don’t offer a potentially discouraging word that would challenge existing prejudice on the homestead.

A cousin of “resolutionary” Christianity is “non-attribution” Christianity.

When the Baptist World Alliance met in Prague in 2008, the BWA held a two-hour forum about whether to respond formally and publicly to a peacemaking initiative from Islamic leaders to Christian leaders.

Baptists explored a letter titled “A Common Word Between Us and You.” According to BWA press rules, direct quotations and identification of the more than 80 participants were not allowed.

Several American denominational leaders spoke favorably for a sturdy BWA response.

All these years later, one is hard pressed to see any evidence that some of them have spoken publicly in support of what is commonly referred to as the Common Word initiative.

They said the right things under the dome of non-attribution but didn’t advance the common good in public in their own communities.

All this is to say that moral witness by signature – with its other cousins – is questionable.

With frank disclosure, has on occasions issued pastoral letters with signatures.

For example, we issued an open letter in 2006 supporting public education that was signed by 200 Baptist ministers. Accompanying that letter was a free, 20-page resource.

The difference between our open letter and others is that the signatories pledged to take actions – pray for public schools, share the letter with others, challenge those who demonize public schools and so on.

With frank disclosure, has also sponsored events where press coverage was qualified.

We led a delegation of Baptists a year ago to the White House. One of the ground rules was that no formal journalists could attend, although participating Baptist clergy could tweet during the event and speak about it afterward.

Witness by signature and its cousins may be useful tools for moral engagement if participants speak publicly.

For example, Amy Jacks Dean, co-pastor of Park Road Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C, did a splendid job telling her congregation about her White House visit.

She announced her plans and sought feedback before she attended. She spoke about what she experienced upon her return. She didn’t hide her moral engagement.

If we are going to affix our names to documents or vote for resolutions or support public efforts in private meetings, then let’s make sure that our own shareholders know what we’ve done and why.

And let’s go a second mile by reminding shareholders (congregants, colleagues and supporters) and decision-makers (government officials, corporate leaders and others) of the stance we’ve taken.

Returning to the initial question, does moral witness by signature and its cousins really make a difference in the public square?

It makes a difference if we refuse to hide our position under a bushel.

Robert Parham is executive editor of and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook.

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