On Aug. 7, 1980, the newly elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Bailey Smith, visited the White House to meet with President Jimmy Carter. During that meeting 30 years ago, Smith attacked Carter’s religious beliefs because of political differences.
Three decades later, Baptists continue to participate – both as accusers and as victims – in political disagreements where politicians’ religious commitments are impugned.
Standing in the Oval Office, Smith looked at Carter and declared, “We are praying, Mr. President, that you will abandon secular humanism as your religion.”
Carter, who continued to teach Bible studies at a Southern Baptist church while president, wrote in his book “Our Endangered Values” about how confusing this comment was to him: “This was a shock to me. I considered myself to be a loyal and traditional Baptist, and had no idea what he meant.”
Ironically, Smith had backed Carter’s presidential hopes just four years earlier. In 1976, Smith declared in a speech to the pastors’ conference at the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting that America “needs a born-again man in the White House … and his initials are the same as our Lord’s.”
However, after four years of Carter’s political policies, Smith – and many other Southern Baptists – abandoned Carter for Ronald Reagan. Rather than couching his political disagreements with Carter in political terms, Smith instead questioned Carter’s religious commitment.
Three decades later, Baptists continue to participate in religiously infused political attacks. In 2008, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney saw his candidacy attacked by many conservative evangelical Protestants who disapproved of his Mormon faith. Those raising the religion question included a Southern Baptist seminary president.
Barack Obama also faced religious scrutiny in 2008 as e-mails falsely claimed he was a Muslim and therefore supposedly unqualified for office. Former Southern Baptist Convention Second Vice President Wiley Drake remains one of Obama’s most vicious critics – even praying for Obama’s death.
As Election Day nears for this year’s midterm races, religiously infused political attacks are becoming regular features in contests across the nation.
In Nevada, Republican Sharron Angle recently accused her opponent, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, of violating the First Commandment because she disagreed with some of his political policies. She also leveled the attack against Obama and Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
“[T]hese programs that you mentioned – that Obama has going with Reid and Pelosi pushing them forward – are all entitlement programs built to make government our God,” Angle argued during an interview on a Christian radio station. “And that’s really what’s happening in this country is a violation of the First Commandment. We have become a country entrenched in idolatry, and that idolatry is the dependency upon our government. We’re supposed to depend upon God for our protection and our provision and for our daily bread, not for our government.”
She added that the race between her and Reid was a faith-based conflict: “You know, this is a war of ideology, a war of thoughts and of faith. And we need people to really stand for faith and trust, not hope and change.”
Angle, a Southern Baptist, also described her campaign against Reid as part of God’s call during comments to former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed and in an interview with Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network.
In Oklahoma, the Americans United for Separation of Church and State recently filed an IRS complaint against the organization Reclaiming Oklahoma for Christ. The organization, which is closely associated with Fairview Baptist Church, sent out an e-mail supporting Republican Sally Kern, who is a Baptist running for re-election to the state House of Representatives. The e-mail charged Kern’s political opponents with trying to defeat her because she is “an outspoken Christian” who works to “defend Biblical values.”
In Tennessee, religiously tinted political attacks even surfaced recently between members of the same Baptist church. Two of the candidates for a District County Commission seat are members of East Ridge Baptist Church in Chattanooga. Yet, Republican Tim Boyd attacked Democrat Kenny Smith, claiming that he had never seen Smith “darken the door” of the church.
“Generally the friends that know you as a person that is a lot of times your church family and if you’re active in church, they will get behind you and support you as an individual because of the relationships you’ve built through the church,” Boyd added.
In Missouri, Republican congressional hopeful Ed Martin attacked the state’s Democratic secretary of state, Robin Carnahan, for allegedly doing “the devil’s work” and for being “the devil.” Carnahan, a Baptist, graduated from a Southern Baptist college. Carnahan’s Republican opponent for the U.S. Senate, Roy Blunt, is a Southern Baptist and former president of a Southern Baptist university.
In the Alabama Republican gubernatorial primary, Bradley Byrne faced ads criticizing him for supposedly not believing the Bible was completely literally true. Byrne lost the runoff election to Baptist Robert Bentley, who also attacked Byrne’s beliefs about the Bible.
In the South Carolina Republican gubernatorial primary, Nikki Haley was attacked by some who claimed the adult convert from Sikhism to Christianity was not really a Christian. Haley’s religious critics included Southern Baptists.
After the encounter with Bailey Smith three decades ago, Carter asked his pastor about the comment and learned about the conflict brewing in the Southern Baptist Convention. Smith, the second president elected as part of the effort launched by Paige Patterson and Paul Pressler, embodied the changes occurring in the denomination.
Thirty years later, it remains clear that such a movement changed the tone of denominational politics. Smith’s comment in the Oval Office may have surprised Carter, but such religious attacks have become a staple of political campaigns with Baptists.
Brian Kaylor is a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.