ST. LOUIS — Don Hinkle stands out among the serious, conservative men of the Missouri Baptist Convention. Not that Hinkle isn't conservative or serious. He is both. But Hinkle prefers bow ties, which — along with his white, furry mustache and thatch of white hair — give him a sort of plump Mark Twain air.
Late last week, a church-state watchdog group in Washington filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service accusing Hinkle, who is also his organization's director of public policy, with violating federal tax law by intervening in two campaigns for public office.
Those were the Republican primary campaigns of U.S. Rep. Todd Akin for U.S. Senate, and Ed Martin for Missouri attorney general.
The 500,000-member Missouri Baptist Convention is the state arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the country, with about 16 million members.
In his column in the May edition of the Pathway, the state convention's newsjournal, Hinkle wrote that while he did not want an American theocracy, "when it comes to public policy, Southern Baptists must be motivated by love for our fellow citizens, believing that God's way is the best way."
For that reason, Hinkle continued, "I personally support candidates like U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, a Republican who wants to challenge Democrat Claire McCaskill for her U.S. Senate seat, and Republican Ed Martin, the St. Louis attorney who is running for state attorney general."
On Monday, Hinkle tweeted his support for Akin: "I just contributed $100 to support @ToddAkin — Todd Akin for Senate. Help at http://Akin.org."
Hinkle did not respond to a request from the Post-Dispatch for comment, but he told The Associated Press: "One thing that has drawn me to Todd is his faith."
That kind of activity was called inappropriate in a letter to the IRS written by Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
"Hinkle, who serves as editor of the publication, characterized his endorsement as 'personal,' but as you know, federal tax law does not permit the employees of tax-exempt organizations to use official publications to intervene in elections."
A spokesman for the IRS declined a Post-Dispatch request for comment.
Hinkle, 57, is a Tennessee native whose newspaper career began while he was in the U.S. Air Force, according to his biography on the Missouri Baptist Convention's website. He later worked as a reporter at a succession of newspapers in Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky.
After going back to school to get his master's degree in Christian education, he began writing for Baptist Press, the official news organization for the Southern Baptist Convention. In 2002, he was named editor of the Pathway.
Hinkle's columns are often combative and his ire is directed at those he thinks disagree with his conservative views: Democrats, the news media and more moderate Christians.
In the column in which he said he personally supported the candidacies of Akin and Martin, Hinkle also wrote that Republicans make mistakes, too.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie "recently appointed a pro-homosexual" to the state supreme court, Hinkle pointed out, and President George H.W. Bush "appointed pro-abortion David Souter to the U.S. Supreme Court."
In Missouri, former Sen. John Danforth "has supported cloning, an issue that Missouri Southern Baptists staunchly oppose," Hinkle wrote, and "one Republican lawmaker, Rep. Zachary Wyatt of Kirksville, is a homosexual."
In June, Danforth gave the keynote speech at a two-day meeting of Christian leaders called the Better Angels Summit. The conference, hosted by the Washington-based Faith & Politics Institute and co-sponsored by Washington University's Danforth Center on Religion & Politics, was named for the final words of Abraham Lincoln's first inaugural address, in which the president articulated his hope to avoid war after the secession of the South.
In the June meeting's keynote address, Danforth struck similar chords:
"All of you, no matter where you are on the religious spectrum or where you are on the political spectrum, must take seriously what St. Paul said, that while we hate evil, we're supposed to love one another with mutual affection and live in harmony."
He told the participants: "You have the ability to affect the tone and the substance of American politics."
One member of the group, Richard Land, the outgoing president of the Southern Baptist Convention's lobbying arm, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, called today's political climate "pernicious and cancerous," according to a Faith & Politics Institute release.
"It is up to us people of faith to try to lead by example and by exhortation to get people to elevate the discourse by understanding that we can disagree with everything somebody may say without attacking them as a person."
On Thursday, the Faith & Politics Institute released a "Better Angels Statement," signed by all 21 of the Christian leaders.
"While we do not agree on some issues, we are concerned that excessive polarization in politics is harming America," they wrote.
In June 2011, Akin told a radio interviewer that "at the heart of liberalism really is a hatred for God and the belief that government should replace God."
Afterward, Hinkle took to the pages of the Pathway, not just to defend Akin (whom he said "is widely regarded as a Christian gentleman") but to amplify the congressman's idea.
"So, does liberalism hate God? Its rebellion against the authority of the Bible leaves it in the position of calling God a liar," Hinkle wrote. "I am glad Akin said what he said. The eternal destination of people, who are being misled, is at stake. It has provided an opportunity to shed light on a movement — while initially well-meaning — that has descended into the dark recesses of heresy."
Tim Townsend writes for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in St. Louis, Mo. Via RNS.
Photo credit: Christian flag, American flag image by Bonita R. Cheshier/Shutterstock.