No political race is more telling about state of race relations within American Christianity than the one in Tennessee, where an African-American Democratic congressman is running for a U.S. Senate seat against a white Republican former mayor, who was pro-choice until his current run.
The race is a test about race.
A wing of the fundamentalist-controlled Southern Baptist Convention, the overwhelmingly white Tennessee Baptist Convention, claims a membership of 1.1 million in a state with a population of 5.7 million. How Southern Baptists vote matters enough to tip the scales in the election.
How they vote will disclose how far Southern Baptists have moved away from their segregation heritage and racial prejudice.
While the nation’s largest Protestant denomination took 150 years to apologize for slavery in a non-binding resolution, its current leadership has done little to advance civil rights, advocate for social justice and enhance leadership opportunities for people of color. Instead the SBC is the Religious Right’s most loyal denomination.
That makes the Tennessee race all the more interesting given Democratic Congressman Harold Ford’s conservative moral report card. Like Southern Baptists, Ford supports the posting of the Ten Commandments in courtrooms and the saying of prayers in public schools. He backs a ban on Internet gambling with a credit card and favors increasing fines for indecent broadcasting. He opposes gay marriage and abortion on demand. He favors banning partial-birth abortions.
It’s unlikely that Tennessee’s leading anti-abortion organization will endorse Ford. But neither has his opponent, Bob Corker, locked up that endorsement.
Tennessee Right to Life said in the Republican primary that they were unwilling to trust Corker’s change of heart on abortion in light of his record and affiliations.
In mid-August, Corker again stumbled with the state’s Religious Right. According to an Associated Press story, Tennessee’s Eagle Forum president, Bobbie Patray, a member of Two Rivers Baptist Church, said Corker should return a contribution from the owner of a company that makes video gambling machines. Corker refused to do so.
Ford, on the other hand, returned contributions from the pornography industry when Eagle Forum said he should.
As the Republican Party has historically paraded its faith credentials, Ford has done the same. He talks about faith on the stump and in TV ads.
“I started in church the old fashioned way,” said Ford in an ad shot in the sanctuary of his home Baptist church. “I was forced to. And I’m better for it. I’m Harold Ford Jr. And here, I learned the difference between right and wrong.”
In an earlier ad, in a classroom, Ford said, “Whenever I talk to kids I tell them three things: Work hard. Play by the rules. And keep God first. It’s about responsibility.… We need a new generation of leadership.”
Corker, too, has played the religion card: “I was in church one Sunday years ago and saw a notice in the church bulletin that they needed a builder to lead a mission trip to Haiti. I volunteered and it was one of the most moving experiences of my life.”
If expressions of faith and bedrock conservative moral values are not defining issues of difference, then the decisive issue may be race and the determinative vote may be that of Southern Baptists, who when they gather on Sunday morning at church create the most segregated place in the South.
But the vote will be on a Tuesday in a desegregated society, raising the big question about whether race matters outside of church for Southern Baptists.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.