Will Campbell–author, civil-rights activist and iconoclastic Baptist minister–denounced leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention as “soul molesters,” who have turned their back on Baptist principles like the separation of church and state, in a newspaper interview.

“Soul molesters, that’s what I call these television evangelists,” the 81-year-old self-described “bootleg preacher” said in a Dec. 1 cover story of Nashville Scene, an alternative weekly newspaper.

“Soul molesters. That bunch that call themselves Christian. They are not Christian, but a very powerful political group,” he continued. “Groups like those with Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, those people that run the LifeWay show (a reference to LifeWay Christian Resources–the Southern Baptist Convention publisher).

“They don’t show me much about the Christian faith,” he said. “They hate, hate everybody except themselves and their power. Falwell stood down there at the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Nashville recently and said, ‘We won this election.’ And he spoke the truth. They did elect George W. Bush.”

As Campbell sees it, summarized writer Joseph Sweat, “the well-heeled, Bible-thumping folks at the SBC have abandoned Christ in favor of Caesar, turned their dark suits and ties toward the Golden Calf of politics and away from the strict separation of church and state tradition of the Baptist church.”

The author of 17 books, including his acclaimed 1977 autobiography Brother to a Dragonfly, Campbell is said to be the inspiration for minister Will B. Dunn in Doug Marlette’s “Kudzu” cartoon series.

Campbell, who lives near Mt. Juliet, Tenn., was the only white person present at the side of Martin Luther King at the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He joined two other white ministers to escort black children past a gauntlet of screaming white racists during the 1957 school desegregation crisis in Little Rock, Ark. He also has been bitterly criticized by liberals for reaching out to individual members of the Ku Klux Klan, as he has with country music stars such as Kris Kristofferson and the late Waylon Jennings.

His current work in progress, according to the article, is a book of commentaries on a series of black-and-white photographs taken decades ago, which chronicle the life and work of a poor African-American pastor of a tiny rural church in Marshall County, Miss.

During the interview, Campbell contrasted the elderly black preacher in the photos with the television faith healer Benny Hinn.

“Have you ever seen Benny Hinn?” Campbell asked. “These frauds, God Almighty. Just liars. Benny Hinn has his own jet airplane, a 10-bedroom house overlooking the Pacific Ocean. This old black preacher lived in a shack. He had an old pickup truck, but most of the time when he went to his church he borrowed a wagon and a team of mules. This guy is authentic. These rich televangelists are frauds mostly. They are liars.”

Campbell maintained that current Baptist leaders are traitors to their Anabaptist roots, because of their support for the war in Iraq and the death penalty and their prohibition of female pastors.

“They have hijacked the seminaries,” he said, “and become revisionists of Baptist history.”

SBC leaders, including Two Rivers Baptist Church pastor Jerry Sutton and Ethics & Religious Liberty head Richard Land, reportedly declined to be interviewed for the story. Land said through a spokesperson he had “nothing to say about Campbell.”

One of two Campbell novels being reissued (along with The Glad River) is The Convention, a 1988 “parable” about a woman who discovers that though the SBC forbids women to preach there is nothing in the rules to prevent a female from becoming the convention president. She wins the office through some political maneuvering, only to resign after realizing the system is so corrupt “there is nothing left to run.”

Campbell shared a convention story of his own in the newspaper feature, recalling the time years ago when the SBC met in New Orleans and a publisher was told by he could not sell Campbell’s books at the LifeWay book store. At the same meeting, Campbell was in the press room and discussed with a man on his way to becoming a top convention leader a proposed expansion of the federal death penalty.

“You do believe in the Commandment, ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill,’ don’t you?” Campbell asked.

“Well, certainly,” the SBC official said.

“Well, then, surely you are opposed to this death penalty expansion?” Campbell asked.

“Absolutely not,” the official said. “We sent a letter to the White House in support.”

“Well then, you are a hypocrite and a jackass,” Campbell replied.

The Nashville Scene is a free-distribution newspaper that covers news, entertainment, arts and dining in metropolitan Nashville. Its sister papers are The Village Voice in New York City, the LA Weekly and OC Weekly in California, City Pages in Minneapolis/St. Paul and Seattle Weekly in Washington state.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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