The Baptist General Convention of Texas Christian Life Commission’s Summer Public Policy Institute (SPPI) each year brings students to Austin to share their views, ask difficult questions, and challenge one another to live out their faith more deeply.
We started the Institute in 2005 in response to a number of concerns, including unease over the melding of theology and political ideology in many churches and fear that many young Baptists lack a strong denominational identity.
Moreover, we want students to consider faith’s implications for public policy, to consider possible solutions, and to hear God’s call in their lives. We also want them to meet other young leaders who share their interests and to observe positive role models who work at the intersection of faith and politics.
Participants come from all over our state and from every ethnic, socioeconomic and political background. The institute is staffed by young adults with experience in youth ministry and policy work and led by Christian Life Commission Interim Director and Citizenship and Public Policy Director Suzii Paynter.
As far as we know, it is the only nonpartisan program of its kind for high school students interested in the intersection of faith and public affairs. We cover five themes: political campaigns, immigration, creation stewardship, religious liberty and poverty. Each day includes Bible study, speakers with expertise in each issue area and service projects, films or interactive learning opportunities.
SPPI speakers are outstanding role models for our students. Each is uniquely qualified by God for his or her work. Like the social worker who grew up in a dangerous neighborhood and now runs a program to help daughters of incarcerated women avoid making their mothers’ mistakes.
And the seminary graduate who simultaneously worked for a Congressman and co-pastored a Washington church.
Or the Cuban-American businessman who left a lucrative career to pastor a church community center that helps new immigrants assimilate into American society. Each of these leaders shows students how to live out God’s call in the public sphere.
One early criticism of SPPI was that these issues are too complex for 16- to 18-year-olds. Others questioned the appropriateness of teaching applied ethics in a public policy context.
What we have learned, however, is that Baptist teenagers are already thinking about these tough subjects. They wonder about religious expression graduation ceremonies. They are passionate about taking care of the environment. They dislike the incivility of modern politics.
The question is not whether these issues are too difficult or controversial for students, but rather, where do we want them to develop their ethical convictions about public life? School? Talk radio? Or with leaders whose faith informs their response to these issues?
None of the students we have hosted in Austin the last two summers are afraid of hard questions. It is not easy to wrestle with God and one another over questions about justice, mercy and humility: What is the principled, compassionate, and fair way to treat illegal immigrants? Should government play a role in helping the poor? In an age of multimillion-dollar political campaigns, is it possible for a Christian to be a truly ethical politician?
Students respond well to the SPPI. Participants almost uniformly thank us for the opportunity to discuss these issues, and for taking their opinions seriously. Some say they have clearly discerned God’s call for their lives; others are just beginning that journey.
They tell us that they have a better understanding of what it means to be Baptist, that they are thankful to know other teenagers with similar interests, and that they have been challenged to think about familiar issues in a new way.
If we are truly concerned about ensuring that the legacy which claims that the principles of priesthood of the believer and religious liberty have implications for our involvement in the world around us will endure, why would we not help teenagers ponder these issues?
Why would we not facilitate development of a strong biblical basis for understanding politics? Why would we not teach students to appreciate that the state and the church are inherently concerned with different kingdoms? Why would we not enjoy learning alongside of our teenagers, and do our best to create similar opportunities elsewhere?
Laura Seay is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Texas at Austin and member of FirstBaptistChurch in Austin.
Suggested study resource:
Looking at Leadership
Laura Seay is an Assistant Professor of Government at Colby College. She studies African politics, conflict and development, with a focus on central Africa.