By John D. Pierce
A recent letter to pastors of affiliated churches from J. Robert White, executive director of the statewide Southern Baptist organization long known as the Georgia Baptist Convention, explains the plan to “bear influence” on state legislators.
“Spiritually speaking and politically speaking these are very challenging days,” White wrote. “I want to ask you if you would be willing to be one of approximately 200 Georgia Baptist pastors that I am seeking who would be willing to minister to your local representative and/or senator to develop a relationship and to fulfill needs for ministry for him or her and their family.”
Clearly, White seeks something in return from state political leaders for these pastoral acts: “As pastors we understand the importance of developing personal relationships in order to effectively minister and also to bear influence.”
White began his letter lamenting a political loss — the failed attempt to enshrine in Georgia law discrimination against gay, lesbian and transgender persons in the name of religious liberty and in strong reaction to last year’s Supreme Court ruling permitting same-sex marriage that riled religious conservatives.
In his letter White commended the state General Assembly for passing the so-called “religious liberty” bill vetoed in April by Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican and a Baptist layman, following major backlash from business, civic and civil rights groups along with warnings of significant financial losses for Atlanta and other Georgia venues from sports, conventions, businesses and other activities should the measure become law.
The public claim of Georgia Baptist lobbyists and others pushing for such legislation was/is to “protect” pastors and churches from being forced to perform, host or attend same-sex weddings although no such pressure has been put on ministers and churches since government has no authority to do so. The separation of church and state resulting from the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution ensures those freedoms already.
However, limiting freedoms by other organizations and businesses for targeted groups based on claims of religious conviction is a major concern for those who value liberty and justice for all — and recall when such laws targeted other minority groups. Discrimination concealed as religious liberty is still discrimination.
Apparently, the battle will continue and increase during the next legislative cycle as White and other Georgia Baptist leaders enlist and train pastors to do their statewide lobbying.
At least one pastor who received the letter has pushed back. Michael Helms of First Baptist Church of Jefferson, Ga., said he first ignored the letter until it became a topic among his pastor-peer group. Then he discussed the matter with some of his church leaders as well.
Helms expressed his concerns in a written response to White, which he shared with Nurturing Faith Journal. Evangelicals, he said, should have learned from the failure of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority movement decades ago that sought “to gain political clout as a means of placing a stamp of Christian values on the culture.”
In his letter, Helms questioned the stewardship of this political effort.
“Siphoning off the time and money that pastors need to be spending ministering to our people and our communities to ‘love on their legislators,’ which is just spiritual language for lobbying, is not going to do anything to help us increase our baptism numbers, which continue to slip each year,” wrote Helms. “Not only is this not our primary task or responsibility as pastors, it is partisan.”
Helms added that as a pastor he cannot, should not and would not attempt to tell his congregants how to vote or to speak for them on political matters — recognizing varied perspectives within the church. He urged White to focus on the group’s stated mission purposes as well.
“I do not think that it is the place of the Georgia Baptist Convention to use its influence to persuade pastors in becoming political,” Helms wrote.
Helms warned of the seduction of power that comes from entering the political realm, citing the biblical story of the mother of disciples James and John asking Jesus for one son to sit at his right hand and the other to sit at his left, which Jesus rejected.
“Instead of seeking to lord our power over the political spectrum, Jesus taught us the power of love, which is manifested by humbly serving the people around us, all kinds of people, not just those who we see on Sunday, but also those who will never come to our churches,” wrote Helms.
Helms asserted that he considers this latest political action to be a misplacement of resources.
Georgia Baptist leaders often proclaim their mission of reaching the state for Christ. From a more-public standpoint, however, their mission conveys a quite different and misguided message.
Recently, Georgia Baptist editor Gerald Harris called for limiting religious liberty for Muslims in the U.S. His position received widespread coverage and significant opposition — even from fellow Southern Baptists. Add to this the increased political efforts by White and it appears that Georgia Baptists — at least publicly — are quite heavily focused on limiting freedoms for two minority groups: Muslims and LGBT persons.
And they are using money from the offering plates of churches across the state to accomplish their mission. White is offering to cover the costs for pastors to attend his Oct. 10-11 lobbying training session at Georgia Baptist headquarters in Duluth.
White is hopeful: “I am praying for a large gathering of Georgia Baptist pastors who are willing to love on their legislators and be the spirit of Christ to them and their family.”
Today’s high-profile Baptist mission in Georgia might seem a bit different from what many who give their offerings faithfully each Sunday have in mind.