I have intentionally waited a few days to write about the meeting at the White House with a delegation of Baptists in order to process my thoughts and feelings.
It is a rather “heady” thing to be invited to the nation’s symbol of political power (regardless of who occupies the presidency), and one can’t help but be influenced by the august trappings and impressive atmosphere of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Executive Office Building.
So, here is my assessment of the meeting’s value and significance. I recognize that others who attended might come away with an entirely different set of insights.
On the positive side:
- The meeting was significant simply because it took place. Baptists have a right and responsibility to participate in the civic sphere and to dialogue with those in political power (as do people from other faith traditions). Our delegation was well led by Ricky Creech, executive minister of the District of Columbia Baptist Convention, and Robert Parham, executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics. Throughout the briefing, our members expressed themselves in a dignified and respectful manner, even when offering constructive criticism.
- As a regional Baptist leader, I do not make public endorsements of politicians or political parties. I do not believe we should be partisan when representing Christ and the Kingdom of God. That said, I was most impressed with the administration officials who met with us. They engaged us in a nonpartisan manner, as befits their positions. They were well versed in their fields, engaging as people, and diverse as a group. A number of them were quite open about their faith and religious background.
In particular, I must say that Paul Monteiro, associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, was most impressive. He represented the administration with energy, led discussions efficiently and spoke on issues persuasively and concisely. Regardless of one’s political persuasion, this was a group of civil servants we could all be proud of.
- Of course, every issue and concern could not be aired in a single three-hour meeting. I was encouraged that the officials we met seemed genuinely open to continuing the dialogue with us as a group and as individual leaders. As was repeated often throughout the discussion, this meeting should be recognized as the beginning, not the conclusion, of an ongoing dialogue between Baptists and the administration.
By way of constructive criticism, I would offer these points:
- The presentations by the administration representatives focused on programs rather than policies. Of course, it may be argued that programs implicitly reflect policies, and I understand the point. However, lost in the plethora of initiative announcements, program descriptions, contact phone numbers and resource sheets were the larger issues that rightly concern Baptists and other people of faith. While it was interesting to discover that there are at least a dozen faith-based offices within the various departments of the federal government, what I wanted to dialogue about was the larger issue of the proper relationship between the government and religious communities in the 21st century.
How do church and state properly cooperate and partner with one another in a multi-faith society? Does the government have a right to impose its views on religious institutions when perspectives clash or as a condition of partnership?
- Domestic issues crowded out any meaningful discussion of foreign policy. With a never-ending war in Afghanistan, Iran defiantly progressing toward nuclear weapons production capability, and the need for the world not to forget Haiti as it tries to rebuild following the 2010 earthquake (just to mention three issues), it seems unfortunate that we did not focus more on the needs of our world.
- I would be less than honest if I did not admit disappointment that President Obama was unable to participate in our discussion for at least a few minutes (one would never presume to be the focus of the president’s attention for four hours!). For the record, he was in North Carolina that day.
Millions of Americans are Baptists, and it would have sent a signal to our community that he considers us to be an important part of the American mosaic.
That said, my remarks should not be interpreted as a criticism of the president. His absence says nothing about his feelings toward Baptists (it was not a “snub”). If the president had been at the White House, I believe he would have greeted us. Surely it is impossible for him to greet or address every delegation that comes to a White House meeting.
Furthermore, the business of government is rightly done through its civil servants, and often they are the people one needs to talk with in order to make an impact in a specific area of policy.
What did our delegation achieve by attending this White House briefing?
The exercise in civic discourse was worthwhile. A few important concerns were expressed. Valuable information flowed. And perhaps a relationship or two was kindled. Time will tell.
An ordained Baptist minister, he serves as historian for the Baptist World Alliance and affiliate professor of church history at Northern Seminary. At the end of 2019, Spitzer retired as general secretary of the American Baptist Churches USA. He is the author of Baptists, Jews, and the Holocaust (Judson Press, 2017).