ST. LOUIS–God will praise Southern Baptists as “good and faithful servants,” President George W. Bush predicted in an address broadcast by satellite to the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting June 11.
During a 12-minute broadcast, Bush repeatedly expressed his appreciation for Southern Baptists. Messengers reciprocated with repeated applause, giving him a standing ovation when he concluded.
Bush marveled that the SBC has grown to about 16 million members. Historically, Baptists have included early American religious liberty pioneer Roger Williams, as well as evangelist Billy Graham, “a man who has played such an important role in nurturing my faith,” Bush said.
Southern Baptists also have counted among their number U.S. presidents, such as Harry Truman, he added, not mentioning the two most recent Southern Baptist presidents, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
Baptists have exerted an extraordinary influence on American history, championing principles of religious tolerance and freedom and “the ideal of a free church in a free state,” the president said. “The Baptist form of church government was a model of democracy, even before the founding of America.”
“Baptists understood the deep truth of what Rev. Martin Luther King said, ‘The church is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state,'” he said.
“Since the earliest days of our republic, Baptists have been guardians of separation of church and state, preserving the integrity of both. Yet you never have believed in separating religious faith from political life. Baptists believe, as America’s founders did, that religious faith is the moral anchor of American life.
“Throughout history, people of faith have often been our nation’s voice of conscience. We all know men and women can be good without faith and also know that faith is an incredibly important source of goodness in our country.”
The president emphasized the importance of implementing faith. “Faith without works is dead,” he said, citing the seventh verse of the second chapter of the New Testament book of James.
“Our democratic government is one way to promote social justice and the common good, which is why the Southern Baptist Convention has become such a powerful voice for some of the great issues of our time,” he said.
Bush listed a litany of those issues his administration holds in common with the SBC.
“We believe in fostering a culture of life and that marriage and family are sacred institutions that should be preserved and strengthened,” he said to sustained applause. “We believe a life is a creation, and children are gifts to be loved and protected, not products to be designed and manufactured by human cloning.
“We believe that protecting human dignity and promoting human rights should be the center of America’s foreign policy.
“We believe that our government should view the good people who work in faith-based charities as partners, not rivals,” he added. “We believe that days of discriminating against religious institutions simply because they are religious must come to an end.”
He championed concepts of civility and tolerance toward “humans beings created in the divine image.”
“Yet you also know that civility does not require us to abandon deeply held beliefs,” he said. “Civility and firm resolve can live easily with one another.”
Bush noted faith propels people to care for others in need and affirmed his audience’s response to that challenge.
“For some people, Jesus’ admonition to care for the least of these is an admirable moral teaching, (but) for many Baptists, it is a way of life,” he asserted.
Faith also provides comfort during times of grief, he said, stressing that truth has become much more evident in the wake of Sept. 11, when people across the nation and around the world turned to prayer and found power in faith.
Bush observed Americans have held to important faith-born truths, “that suffering is temporary, that hope is eternal and that the ruthless will not inherit the earth.”
“Our faith teaches us that while weeping may endure for a night, joy comes in the morning,” he said. “And while faith will not make our path easy, it will give us strength for the journey ahead.”
On a personal note, he thanked Southern Baptists for their prayers on his behalf. “Many of you have prayed for my family and me,” he said. “We have felt sustained and uplifted by your prayers. Laura and I are incredibly grateful to you for those prayers. We consider your prayers to be a most precious gift. …
“I want to thank you all for your good works. You’re believers, and you’re patriots, faithful followers of God and good citizens of America. And one day, I believe it will be said of you, ‘Well done, good and faithful servants.'”
As the applause from messengers’ standing ovation began to die down, SBC President James Merritt came to the podium and declared: “President Bush may be a Methodist, but he’s the closest we’ve had to a Southern Baptist president in a long, long time.”
After Bush spoke, presidential assistant Tim Goeglein expressed “heartfelt thanks and a sense of gratitude from each and every staff member of the Bush-Cheney administration.
Since Sept. 11, White House staff has been “overwhelmed with e-mails, letters and phone calls from Southern Baptists,” Goeglein said in St. Louis. Each message has included a promise of prayer not only for the president but also for his staff.
Goeglein traveled to St. Louis to “offer sincere thanks and to praise you for your Christian commitment, and to say thanks to friends like Dr. Merritt and Dr. Richard Land,” president of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
Marv Knox is editor of the Baptist Standard. This article was used with permission.
Coordinator of Fellowship Southwest, an intentionally ecumenical, multicultural, multiracial Cooperative Baptist Fellowship network, and a member of Good Faith Media’s strategic advisory board for news and opinion.