Baptist pastor Julius Scruggs had to preach wearing an eye patch after taking a blow during a stand-in to integrate a Nashville movie theater in the early 1960s. But he didn’t lose his moral vision.
And two lawsuits over his recent election as president of the National Baptist Convention have put rain clouds over the transition. But it hasn’t kept Scruggs, 67, from seeing a new day for the nation’s largest African-American denomination.
In a wide-ranging interview with EthicsDaily.com at his church in Huntsville, Ala., Scruggs offered a moral critique of the prosperity gospel, race relations, Rush Limbaugh, taxation and health-care reform. He also revealed his plans for the 7.5 million-member NBC.
“I think that the prosperity gospel is a threat to Christianity. Period,” said Scruggs of the belief system that God shows favor to believers through wealth and material possessions.
Such teaching is “a subtle distortion of biblical truths,” he said.
“I’m one who believes that God will take care of all of us … But I’m not one who believes that that means that the pastor ought to drive a Bentley car or live in a million dollar house or fly on a corporate jet,” said Scruggs, who has been pastor of First Missionary Baptist Church in Huntsville for 32 years.
“That kind of prosperity is influencing the pulpit and the pew in American life today, and that’s unfortunate because it takes us far and away from the Jesus who talked about foxes have holes and birds have nests but the son of man doesn’t have anywhere to lay his head,” said Scruggs. “There is always a tension between that aspect of Jesus and the Jesus who brought the abundant life to everybody.”
Warning of the allure that money had for clergy, he said, “One has to be grounded in what Christianity is all about to not allow that temptation to get them.”
Scruggs credited much of his own grounding to American Baptist College in Nashville, where he was a student from 1960 to 1964.
“Much of my social consciousness grew out of those years that I was a student at American Baptist because the whole civil rights movement was in its heyday during the ’60s,” said Scruggs.
Scruggs, who holds a master of divinity and doctor of ministry from Vanderbilt University, grew up in a segregated Huntsville.
“You had your white water fountain, colored water fountain, white bathrooms, colored bathrooms. It was all across the city,” he said. “I’ve seen all of that to Obama in the White House.”
Scruggs characterized the election of a black president as an “almost immeasurable” movement, but pointed out that some town-hall meetings and health-care reform debates have also revealed that race relations still need work.
“What I have heard mostly, especially from the clips from TV, have been the people of the Rush Limbaugh-type,” said Scruggs. “And I don’t think that he is the major representative of America, because were he the major representative of America, Obama would never have gotten elected.”
Scruggs said, “We need to call the others out of their silence into the public arena so they can begin to speak so that the nation can hear more voices than just the voices similar to Rush Limbaugh.”
Asked about taxation – a foundational issue for the social justice movement and a flash point for conservatives – Pastor Scruggs offered, “I think that many Christians have been caught up in the hype that we are overtaxed and that our burden of taxation is too great.”
He suggested that Americans think about taxes from another perspective.
“Jesus made taxation a moral issue when he said that we ought to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s,” said Scruggs. “That says to me that he was not against taxation even though his people were being very heavily taxed during that period of time. He was not against taxation, but he did not at the same time want Caesar to overburden the people.”
Many people “put more emphasis on the burden of taxes rather than the services and goods that come out of the whole tax’s idea,” he said.
Speaking about the current health-care reform debate in Congress, the Huntsville pastor spoke in favor of a public option and critically of the health-care insurance industry.
“We are driven more by the profit mode than we are driven by the moral mode. And I think that health-care providers, the insurance industry, ought to have a greater sense of morality than they do. So that they would be more concerned about covering disadvantaged people, poor people, than just looking at the bottom line of what they are going to make,” he said.
“I don’t mind people making money,” Scruggs continued. “But we ought to have a sense of morality about our making money and how much money we need to make over against the services we are rendering.”
Plans for NBC
When Scruggs became pastor of FMBC in January 1977, the church had a budget of $72,000. Now the budget exceeds $2 million. It counts 2,400 active members and continues to expand its facilities and ministries.
It’s that record of successful church growth that may influence Scruggs’ agenda for NBC.
Scruggs said that NBC has far fewer active churches than the oft-reported figure of 30,000 affiliated churches.
“We don’t have 30,000 active churches … much less than that,” he told EthicsDaily.com. “I would like to see within two years that we would move to at least 10,000 active churches in the convention.”
As a “building president,” Scruggs said he wanted to inspire the convention’s constituency to generate greater revenue for the denomination’s work. He cited the needs of American Baptist College and NBC’s foreign and home mission work.
Whether Scruggs focuses on moral or organizational issues, he said he relies for guidance on a biblical text in Proverbs 3: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart … and he will direct your paths.”
“When I allow him [God] to direct my thinking, my speaking and my deeds,” said Scruggs, “I’m acting more like Christ than ever before, and that ought to be my goal.”
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.