Polite conversation encourages the avoidance of discussing religion and politics. It is for good reason. In the history of the world, more blood has been shed and more lives have been lost by the way these forces have conspired together, short of any other factor except a blatant quest for raw absolute power.
Yet, the minute we venture into the social setting, we unavoidably become political, and the minute we open our mouths we undeniably become religious. (Here, I use the word “religious” to define the passionate commitment any one attaches to a particular thought or allegiance.)
We may want to duck and even deny these tough topics, but they will inevitably rise to the surface.
Baptists, who have historically held to the separation of church and state, deeply understand and appreciate these powerful dynamics. Our past honors the legacy of Baptists beaten and imprisoned for their commitment and practice of religious tolerance and freedom. Our theology rests on the bedrock of individual liberty and the integrity of personal conscience. Our vocabulary respects the necessity of a free church that will best flourish when unhindered and unaided by the temporal power of the state.
Baptists hold to these truths out of a deeply held respect that is often misunderstood. We don’t think you can separate complex issues into neat boxes of temporal duties and eternal concerns, nor do we believe that you can easily extricate God from the issues of government.
But we affirm and insist on a clear distinction. There is grave danger when the concerns of religion and politics become so thoroughly mixed together that they become indistinguishable. When any group believes they are doing God’s work exclusively through political means, then a terrible breach has occurred and the door is left open to an egregious corruption.
This context is vital in the participation of the New Baptist Covenant occurring in Atlanta at the end of this month. While this event is purposed to be nonpartisan, it is hard not to notice a lean toward the Democratic side of the political spectrum.
Committed participants include the only two avowed Southern Baptists (at the time of their service) who have been elected president of the United States: Presidents Carter and Clinton as well as Vice President Al Gore, all of course, Democrats. Thankfully on the program there are two U.S. Republican Senators: Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Charles Grassley of Iowa. All of these politicians profess a Baptist faith.
The shadow of the 2008 presidential race may be hard to avoid. One wonders if Hillary Clinton will show up with husband, Bill, and Republican Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee–the only Baptist in the race for either party, though life-long Episcopalian John McCain attends a Baptist church in Arizona–was invited but later declined to speak at this event.
The bottom line is that politics are impossible to avoid. The very issues announced to be discussed–help for the poor and needy, welcome of the stranger, and protection of religious diversity–are all very hot political topics. But, if this event is true to its Baptist name, it must strongly resist any suspicion that it mimics any partisan persuasion.
Mark Johnson is senior minister at Central Baptist Church in Lexington, Ky.
Mark Johnson is senior pastor of Central Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky.