Faith and Politics

The Southern Baptists' Challenge on Race

Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission President Russell Moore leads a panel disc

Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission President Russell Moore leads a panel discussion. Image via Adelle M Banks/RNS

In the wake of tragic shootings of unarmed black men at the hands of vigilantes and white police officers, many institutions across American society, from the president on down, have sought to foster “national conversations” about race.

Perhaps surprisingly, an agency of the Southern Baptist Convention is sponsoring one of the most important and fruitful such conversations. The SBC’s public policy arm, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, has hosted a summit on racial reconciliation last week in Nashville, Tenn.

Founded in 1845 in a split over slavery, the SBC has made laudable efforts to overcome its racist past. Some moderate and liberal Southern Baptist leaders prophetically denounced racism and supported the civil rights movement, but those very leaders were forced out of the denomination during a period of conservative resurgence in the 1980s. Today’s SBC leaders are in the tenuous position of saying that moderates were right about race but wrong about everything else.

Southern Baptist leaders are determined to challenge the lingering indifferent or crude attitudes on race where they still exist among the denomination’s mostly white, mostly Southern constituency.

Charged with carrying out the SBC’s political priorities, the ERLC is best known for its advocacy for religious freedom and against abortion and same-sex marriage. Yet in the wake of unrest over last year’s deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y., the ERLC hastened its plans to hold a summit on race.

The Nashville event drew more than 500 clergy, lay leaders, and seminarians from across Southern Baptist life. Thousands more watched a live stream online. The speaker lineup was male-dominated but was decidedly mixed race. The ERLC was much more eager to hear from ethnic minorities at this summit than it was to hear from gay people at its fall conference on homosexuality.

While the sexuality conference projected certainty and unanimity — acceptance of homosexual expression is inconsistent with Christianity and will not be tolerated in Southern Baptist churches — white Baptists came to their race summit with genuine humility and a spirit of repentance for the harm racism has caused.

Dean Inserra, lead pastor of City Church in Tallahassee, Fla., challenged the audience: “When you say a school or neighborhood has ‘gone downhill,’ what are you saying?”

Conceding his own need for greater empathy, Inserra recalled asking a black clergy colleague to help him understand how police violence affects black communities.

Weekly Wrap 3.27.15: The 10 Best Stories You Missed This Week

1. How Yemen Became the Middle East’s Latest Regional Nightmare

As Saudi Arabia and Egypt say they’re prepared to send in ground troops, here’s a look at how Yemen got to this point.

2. God and Jeb

“[Jeb] Bush wants Christian conservatives to pay attention to what he's done, not just to what he says. But in a Republican presidential primary, can actions — much less actions more than a decade in the past — actually speak louder than words? Can quiet faith, and quiet support from some religious leaders, carry the day against a field full of outspoken Christian warriors?”

3. A Response to Critics of the Open Letter to Franklin Graham

Jesus says ‘If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.’ Jesus does not say, ‘If another member of the church sins against millions, and hundreds of thousands begin to follow his lead on the issue, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.’”

4. Women & Leadership: Public Says Women Are Equally Qualified, but Barriers Exist

And it might not be the barriers you would think. “Only about one-in-five say women’s family responsibilities are a major reason there aren’t more females in top leadership positions in business and politics. Instead, topping the list of reasons, about four-in-ten Americans point to a double standard for women seeking to climb to the highest levels of either politics or business, where they have to do more than their male counterparts to prove themselves. Similar shares say the electorate and corporate America are just not ready to put more women in top leadership positions.”

A Holy Week of Resistance

Angel raising a fist. Image via Neil Lang/shutterstock.com

Angel raising a fist. Image via Neil Lang/shutterstock.com

Someone recently asked me how I answer critics of the Open Letter to Franklin Graham that I co-authored last week. The points of particular interest were these:

1.     In the spirit of Matthew 18, how do you justify writing an open letter to Graham without first going to him and speaking with him in private?

2.     Your letter seems to advocate disobedience to the police. Is that what you’re saying?

Great questions! They’re especially relevant as we close the season of Lent and look forward toward Holy Week. For it is Holy Week when Jesus himself had the most interaction with the earthly authorities of his day.

The first line of the first paragraph of our letter explained that we write in the spirit of Matthew 18 in order to reconcile. Our intent in that was not to bash Dr. Graham; it was to make him aware of the need for reconciliation.

But why didn’t you go to Graham privately first, some have asked.

Notice the actual language of Matthew 18. Jesus says “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.”

Jesus does not say, “If another member of the church sins against millions, and hundreds of thousands begin to follow his lead on the issue, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.”

This is a very important point. There is a difference between sin that affects one person and the sin of a leader that has potential to oppress and lead the church astray.

In Galatians 2:11-17, Paul publicly confronts Peter when his sin threatens to harm the whole church.

Obama to Host Pope Francis at White House in September

Photo via Pete Souza / White House / Flickr / RNS

President Obama and Pope Francis at the Vatican on March 27, 2014. Photo via Pete Souza / White House / Flickr / RNS

President Obama will welcome Pope Francis to the White House during the pontiff’s U.S. visit in September to “continue the dialogue … on their shared values and commitments on a wide range of issues,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said March 26.

The meeting with the president and first lady will take place on Sept. 23, apparently near the start of a visit — the first to the U.S. by the Argentine pope — that will take Francis from the U.S. Capitol to New York and the United Nations and will conclude with a huge outdoor Mass in Philadelphia.

“During the visit, the President and the Pope will continue the dialogue, which they began during the President’s visit to the Vatican in March 2014, on their shared values and commitments on a wide range of issues,” Earnest said in a statement.

Those issues, he said, include “caring for the marginalized and the poor; advancing economic opportunity for all; serving as good stewards of the environment; protecting religious minorities and promoting religious freedom around the world; and welcoming and integrating immigrants and refugees into our communities.”

The Passover Seder, Designed by and for Women

Photo via Sait Serkan Gurbuz / RNS

Women dance during an annual women’s seder at Congregation Beth El in Bethesda, Md. Photo via Sait Serkan Gurbuz / RNS

On the first night of Passover, Jews ask aloud, “Why is this night different from all other nights?”

For a group of 150-plus women gathered March 22 at Congregation Beth El north of Washington, D.C., that traditional question was followed by an alternative: “Why is this seder different from other seders?”

Answer: “At other seders, men traditionally lead the service. At this seder, women are the leaders.”

Women’s seders are not new. The women who gathered at Beth El on Sunday, 12 days before the holiday begins on April 3, have been at it for 19 years. These seders began in or near cities with substantial Jewish populations about a generation ago, when fewer women played leading roles in synagogues and other institutions of Jewish life.

Today, women in the Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist movements of Judaism in the U.S., which account for about 90 percent of synagogue-affiliated Jews, lead congregations as rabbis, cantors, and synagogue presidents.

Still, women’s seders proliferate, and each year, their guest lists grow.

Nigerian Christians May Back a Muslim Candidate in Upcoming Presidential Elections

Photo via REUTERS / Afolabi Sotunde / RNS

Muhammadu Buhari gestures to supporters in Daura, Nigeria. Photo via REUTERS / Afolabi Sotunde / RNS

Under the shadow of Boko Haram violence, Nigerians head to the polls March 28 to elect a president and a deputy in a vote observers say is critical for the country’s stability and economic progress.

In a twist that might have been difficult to predict, many Christians in Nigeria’s north are backing a Muslim candidate to lead their country away from the brink of violence and chaos.

Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim from the north and the leader of the All Progressives Congress party, is challenging the leadership of incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian from the south who heads the ruling People’s Democratic Party.

Some Nigerians fear that another term for Jonathan would mean institutionalization of corruption and emergence of more Muslim extremist groups in addition to Boko Haram.

And they are willing to pin their hopes on a Muslim candidate.

Ted Cruz and God’s Political Subversion

Religion and politics. Image via ehrlif/shutterstock.com

Religion and politics. Image via ehrlif/shutterstock.com

Ted Cruz became the first major candidate to declare a presidential run for 2016. His formal announcement came yesterday at Liberty University, the largest Christian university in the world.

Cruz’s announcement at Liberty University was an important political strategy. Cruz is the poster child of the Tea Party movement. He wants to spread his influence by appealing to evangelicals. There is no better place to garner the evangelical vote than the largest Christian university on the planet.

Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post says that Cruz’s message at Liberty was essentially this, “I am one of you; I will put my religious faith at the center of this campaign.”

Cruz put his religious faith at the center of his campaign by invoking God and American exceptionalism, while at the same time critiquing Democrats and Obamacare. Liberty students cheered as Cruz passionately claimed, “God bless Liberty University ... God’s blessing has been on America from the very beginning of this nation, and I believe God isn’t done with America yet. I believe in you. I believe in the power of millions of courageous conservatives rising up to re-ignite the promise of America.”

Cruz is the first serious candidate to officially throw his hat in the presidential ring. Because he quickly invoked God, it’s a safe bet that future Republican and Democratic candidates will also invoke the blessings of God the Almighty.

So, let’s talk God and politics.

Gay and Transgender Inmates Invited to Lunch with Pope Francis During Prison Visit

Photo via giulio napolitano / Shutterstock.com

Photo via giulio napolitano / Shutterstock.com

When Pope Francis pays a visit to Naples March 21 he will have lunch with some 90 inmates at a local prison, a contingent that will reportedly include 10 from a section reserved for gay and transgendered prisoners, and those infected with the virus that causes AIDS.

The stopover at the Giuseppe Salvia Detention Center in Poggioreale, near Naples, was originally not scheduled to include lunch, according to a report from Tv2000, an Italian television network operated by the country’s Catholic bishops.

But the pope insisted on the meal, which will be prepared by the prisoners, some of whom will come from two other detention centers. The 90 were chosen by lottery from among 1,900 inmates, according to the Vatican Insider website .

Among the many innovations Francis has made since his election two years ago this month has been a new tone and approach to gay and transgender people.

Justice Ginsburg Writes a Feminist Opinion for Passover

Photo via REUTERS / Mario Anzuoni / RNS

Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Photo via REUTERS / Mario Anzuoni / RNS

Rabbi Ruth Bader Ginsburg?

Not quite, but when a Jewish nonprofit asked the Supreme Court justice to write a biblical commentary for Passover, she agreed, and added a feminist twist: It would raise up the often overlooked women of the Exodus story.

Ginsburg, one of three Jews and three women on the high court, is known as a champion of women’s rights — but not for being particularly religious.

But Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt, whom Ginsburg asked to help out with the commentary, said Ginsburg had a clear vision for the piece and knew exactly which biblical women she wanted to highlight from the iconic liberation story of the Book of Exodus.

“She has a Jewish soul, there is no question,” Holtzblatt, a rabbi at Adas Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Washington, D.C., said of Ginsburg.

“It’s in her. It’s deeply in her.”

Predictions of Evangelical Concessions on LGBT Rights Are Premature

A woman in the March for Marriage in March 2013. Photo via Adelle M. Banks / RNS

Pardon the yawn.

The 1.8 million-member Presbyterian Church (USA) on March 17 voted to officially approve of same-sex marriage, an announcement that shouldn’t surprise anyone who has followed the mainline Protestant denomination’s trajectory. Perhaps a more substantial but less widely reported story was the decision by City Church, San Francisco’s largest evangelical congregation, to affirm LGBT couples.

Evangelicals are among the most stalwart opponents to LGBT marriage, but a number of evangelical congregations have publicly shifted their stance in the last year. Among them are Seattle’s Eastlake Community Church, Nashville’s GracePointe Church, Portland’s Christ Church, and New Heart Community Church in La Mirada, Calif. Other prominent evangelical pastors tell me off the record that they are in the midst of similar conversations.

Churches aren’t the only evangelical factions inching left on matters of sexuality. 

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