Welton Gaddy reflects on the recent meeting of Evangelical leaders and their efforts to reach consensus on a presidential candidate. Rev. Gaddy also shares his own experience with the Southern Baptist Convention.
TRANSCRIPT: Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy
It was bound to happen. At one time, my anger was sufficient to make me think that when it did happen, I would laugh. But, there was no laughing this past week when I began to read reports coming out of the evangelicals’ meeting in Texas for the purpose of consolidating support for one Republican presidential candidate that could beat Mitt Romney. Why, there were even charges of stuffed ballot boxes at the evangelical confab and waiting for some people to leave the meeting before voting on a consensus candidate. I felt a twinge of anger when I heard the reports, but mostly sadness.
Unfortunately, the broadside against religion was justified because finally politically-oriented ministers finally went too far in cloaking partisanship in the garb of spiritual gospel and Christian morality.
The whole thing evoked a rush of memories that I was perfectly satisfied never to call up again. My mind went back to the late 1970’s when Paul Pressler, the judge who hosted the recent meeting in Texas, along with Paige Patterson, a minister in Texas, announced that they had a strategy which would allow them in no more than a decade to take over the Southern Baptist Convention and change the leadership in all of its agencies and seminaries to guarantee conservative leaders. The movement which I came to call “political fundamentalism” used a manipulation of theological issues and church loyalty to advance purposes latched on to interests in politics, money, and power.
At first the whole thing seemed laughable. It would have been difficult to find a classic liberal anywhere in the Southern Baptist Convention. Across the years, Fundamentalists and more progressive thinkers in the SBC had worked together because of a common commitment to religious freedom and cooperation among believers. But, things were changing. Pressler and Patterson wanted no such cooperation; division would serve well their agenda which was political, not spiritual or even much theological.
The political fundamentalists’ take-over of the Southern Baptist Convention happened. Akin to precinct organizers, local pastors recruited and bussed into the convention center for the elections of the convention’s president people-children and adults-to whom they had given instructions on for whom to vote.
A few of us attempted to stop this political movement. But some of the harshest criticism leveled at us came from denominational leaders whose jobs we were trying to protect and the way of cooperation that allowed all of us to work together. Naïve idealists called the whole movement a tempest in a teapot that would never have much impact. After the decade of the strategy that worked, all of those former leaders had lost their jobs and the entire convention had a new agenda. All of this happened without most pastors telling members of their congregations what was happening to their convention.
Convention meetings became sites for building support for presidential candidates like Pat Robertson. When Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford were campaigning against each other in a presidential election year, officers of the convention invited Gerald Ford to address the convention and decided to extend no invitation to their fellow long-time Southern Baptist, Jimmy Carter. If anyone had not seen that the agenda of the power-wielders was political rather than spiritual, all doubts should have been removed at that point.
So, now, in January of 2012 the news out of Texas and the evangelical leadership meeting that took place there as Paul Pressler’s guest catapulted me back to the nausea-inducing events of the late ‘70’s and early 80’s. What Martin Marty once described to me as the “baptistification of Catholicism” and the “catholicization of Baptist evangelicals” took its toll and distinguished this Baptist convention so sharply from its historic Baptist tradition that the Baptist name hardly seemed to fit this convention any more. But everyone can call themselves whatever they please.
When you enter the political arena for partisan purposes, you become a politician, like it or not, whatever you describe as your motivation. Few people will listen to your moral-spiritual rationalizations about your activity; your actions speak louder than your words. Seeking to build a bloc of partisan voters for the Republican primaries is by any definition is raw politics. And so, ministers involved in such an effort not only bring criticism to themselves but to religion itself. And, I take exception to that!
A church, synagogue, or mosque can take part in partisan political campaigns. All they have to do is forfeit their tax exempt status as a religious organization and conduct their campaigns with money not taken from an offering plate. But, no the guys in Texas wanted to have it both ways; to be involved in a religious movement and also be political power brokers. So, news reports talk about evangelicals blaming one another for voting irregularities, some saying that a Catholic in the meeting was the cause of all the trouble. How can that be good for religion?
It’s strange isn’t it? So many of the Republican candidates for the presidency this year felt called by God to seek the office, but the ministers seeking to assure the defeat of one of them-ironically one who did not claim to be called by God to the office-either did not hear the same message from God or did not listen to God at all. The would-be candidate makers listened only to the powerbrokers who divided, then captured the Southern Baptist Convention, caused rifts among Presbyterians, United Methodists, and Missouri Synod Lutherans-the religion cloaked political partisans who want more control in the Republican Party and ultimately want to rule this nation.
The authors of our constitution tried to prevent this. Many of us have worked her for a proper separation of religion and partisan politics. Today, I weep both for religion and the nation.