Does journalist Sally Quinn know enough about religion to co-moderate the faith discussion in the Washington Post?

If the video conversation with Georgetown University professor Jacques Berlinerblau related to the New Baptist Covenant provides an answer, then the answer is an absolute “no.”

Quinn disclosed a shocking cluelessness about last week’s gathering of North American Baptists in the “God Vote This Week” video.

“Let’s talk about the Baptists, the Southern Baptist Convention this weekend, which was supposed to be to bring together the Southern Baptists who are not particularly evangelical,” Quinn said.

Here’s the first mistake: Quinn did what too many distant observers of Christianity do. She confused Baptists with Southern Baptists, illustrating one of the driving reasons why many of us supported this gathering: to correct the misperception within the media that Southern Baptists represent all Baptists.

Baptists are more than Southern Baptists–numerically and organizationally. American Baptist Churches, U.S.A., does not belong to the Southern Baptist Convention. The National Baptist Convention of America, Inc., National Baptist Convention USA, Inc., North American Baptist Conference USA & Canada and Progressive National Baptist Convention, to name a few of the other participating organizations, do not belong to the SBC. Furthermore, the SBC does not belong to North American Baptist Fellowship of the Baptist World Alliance, an umbrella group that backed the meeting and from whom the SBC withdrew.

Quinn’s second mistake was identifying the purpose of the meeting as bringing together Southern Baptists. The purpose was not to bring together Southern Baptists. The purpose was to unite goodwill Baptists in North America through worship and workshops, prayer meetings and plenary sessions, across racial, ethnic and geographic lines. While many white participants may belong to churches with some level of minimal SBC affiliation, most probably want to lessen their church’s connectivity with the SBC.

Quinn’s third mistake was to imply that these Baptists “are not particularly evangelical.” That is simply theological and sociological babble. If evangelical is defined by personal conversion and the centrality of Jesus, then these Baptists are evangelical. The gathering’s stories, sermons, Scripture readings and songs are pure evidence of an evangelical commitment.

Her fourth mistake was to validate her presupposition that the event was politically partisan with a quotation from a Southern Baptist leader who is the most politically partisan agency head in SBC history. He once said that he wanted the Republican Party to consummate its relationship with the Christian Right and basically endorsed Sen. Fred Thompson, misstating the former candidate’s churchmanship to make him appealing to Southern Baptist voters.

Using him as a proof text to justify a supposition about the gathering is akin to quoting Fred Phelps, the anti-gay demagogue, to justify the presupposition that all Christians want to stone homosexuals.

Unfortunately, Quinn’s conversational partner reinforced her assumption, when he said, “This was put together for blatantly political purposes.”

Politics did crisscross the event, and some may have wanted it to advance a partisan agenda. But the content of the gathering bespeaks that sweeping claim–unless prophetic witness, ministry opportunities and mission endeavors are disguises for voter recruitment. It’s hard to see how prison ministries, interfaith dialogue, evangelical preaching, sexual exploitation, responding to natural disasters and helping young people deal with consumerism energized party affiliation.

Moreover, most of the Baptist preachers I saw at the event are careful to avoid even the perception of partisan politics in their congregations, knowing that their moral vision transcends the notion of divine favoritism for one party over the other and that partisanship creates congregational division.

If it was “blatantly political,” where’s the evidence that it made any difference in the primaries the following week?

Quinn’s fifth misstatement was the observation that “there is such a split in the evangelical movement now, where the fundamentalists have been basically pushed aside.”

Where, pray tell, have the fundamentalists been pushed aside? Fundamentalists control the SBC and run the Christian Right. Many have endorsed Mike Huckabee, and a few have backed Mitt Romney. Most of their leaders think President Bush is on their side and have had steady access to the White House. Fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals have a lot more real power than the media elite and Washington insiders think. And they certainly haven’t been marginalized.

Our culture needs more discussion about faith and politics, not less. The Washington Post has made a good start at facilitating a substantive conversion with its On Faith page. What is needed also is more discernment about the complexity within and between houses of faith.

Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.

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