Church and State

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(Host) Commentator Olin Robison reflects on church, state and the Southern Baptist Convention.

(Robison) Karl Rove, the President’s talented and cagey political guru, thinks that conservative Protestants, especially Baptists, are the absolute core of President Bush’s political base. That is why the President has made time on his schedule in each of the last three years to address the annual meetings of the Southern Baptist Convention. When the convention held its annual meeting last June in Indianapolis, President Bush’s address came via a live telecast form the White House.

It is clear that Mr. Rove and indeed the President both think this to be a very good use of the President’s time. And it may be.

But, on the other hand, it may not be as useful as they think.

There are indeed a lot of Baptists, but they are a contentious lot. And no, I am not being politically incorrect in saying so. They are, bless them, my crowd. Or at least they definitely have been. But they do argue a lot which really is why there are so many Baptist churches. In any given church there may well be a huge argument which all too often leads to a split, and then there are two churches; and then there are four; and so on. And, dear friends, there is no Baptist Church, only Baptist churches. There is no authoritative hierarchy beyond the local congregation, no bishops or arch-bishops, and definitely no pope.

They are anti-authoritarian, anti-hierarchical, and anti-liturgical. As a young seminarian years ago it dawned upon me that we were a branch of Christendom which seemed all too often to define itself by the number of things we were against.

One of the things Baptists have been for, however, is that they have been staunch defenders of total separation of church and state, of religion and government.

It saddens me greatly that there now seems to be a blurring of that line. Karl Rove and company clearly do see the Baptists as the core of the President’s conservative base. After the President’s telecast this year, Ralph Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition, and others, turned up at the convention to try to enlist the help of pastors in getting out the vote. There was even a Bush-Cheney pastor’s reception held at a hotel adjacent to the convention hall.

Pastors who attended the reception were urged to organize parties for the President on dates closer to the election. The goal is to get out the conservative Christian vote.

Some participants in the Indianapolis convention were uncomfortable in what seemed to be a deliberate blurring of the line between church functions and politics. And I am too.

Now, back to the top. Karl Rove and Ralph Reed believe they have a winner here; that these are people dependably in the Republican camp. Maybe so but maybe not.

Not only do the Baptists have no religious hierarchy, they are notoriously independent, both as individuals and as congregations. The Southern Baptist Convention for instance, can pass whatever resolutions it wishes, but those resolutions have no binding effect on anyone; not on any congregation and not on any individual. Baptists really are radical democrats (with a small “d”). When the convention a few years ago passed a resolution calling on Baptists to boycott Disneyland it had no noticeable effect.

Theirs is a big tent. Baptists have produced a host of political right-wingers, but they have also produced Jimmy Carter, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and Harry Truman, and Bill Clinton, and Bill Moyers – indeed it could be a very long list.

And the thing they all have in common is that they don’t like to be told what to do. So maybe, just maybe, it may not be as important as Karl Rove thinks.

This is Olin Robison.

Olin Robison is president of the Salzburg Seminar, located in Middlebury, Vermont and Salzburg, Austria.

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