Saturday, August 30, 2008

In Roman Catholic baptized and reared Sarah Palin, Southern Baptists will find a strong ally; and she will in them, too

As the presumptive Vice-Presidential nominee of the Republican Party, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, who was baptized a Roman Catholic but now attends Assemblies of God churches, will illustrate how much the nation's largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, has changed over the past 50 years.

Forty-eight years ago when the Democratic Party nominated John Fitzgerald Kennedy for President of the United States, Southern Baptist pastors and leaders recoiled at the nominee because of his Roman Catholic background. Ignoring Kennedy's impressive credentials and bright mind, the Baptists argued forcefully in sermons, church newsletters and every forum they could find that the election of Kennedy would de facto turn the country over to the pope in Rome.

Weeks before the election Kennedy recognized the seriousness of the situation and met with key Baptist pastors and leaders on the second floor of the Rice Hotel in downtown Houston. There he pledged his loyalty and fidelity to the American concept of the separation of church and state. After that the Baptists and their cohorts in other denominations calmed down and stopped fighting against him. (Many actually even voted for him!) 

During that same time period, Southern Baptists pastors and leaders declined to interact with Assemblies of God pastors and churches, because they rejected their neo-Pentecostal theology. SBC churches or pastors in that day that leaned Pentecostal soon found themselves ostracized or even evicted from the SBC fold.

Nearly a half-century later, much has changed in the country and among Southern Baptists.

For one thing, in 1960 when the brouhaha over Kennedy's Catholicism occurred, Southern Baptist pastors and leaders mostly were affiliated with the Democratic Party. Southern Baptists' disaffection for Kennedy threatened a serious schism in that party. 

Today, a significant majority of Southern Baptists and Evangelicals register as Republicans. That means they will be mostly loyal to their party's nominee, John McCain, even when they have some reservations about him.

Beyond party affiliation, however, another factor will trump many things in this election. Back when Southern Baptists fought against Kennedy, they and the Democractic Party were not at odds over one of the major social issues of our day—abortion. Until the early 1980s, Southern Baptists were mostly either benign toward or mildly supportive of abortion. The key escape-hatch phrase for the Southern Baptists back then was "abortion for the mental health of the mother". The Democratic Party then as well as now was comfortable with a pro-abortion stance. It became even more so after the Roe v Wade decision in 1973.

Today, Southern Baptists, Roman Catholics, and Assemblies of God are more united in their opposition to abortion than they are divided on many theological points.

Sarah Palin's strong pro-life stand—including her living personal testimony in favor of it—no doubt will grab the attention of a large majority of Southern Baptists as well as other Evangelicals. It will override any concern they might otherwise have about her Roman Catholic roots and her current Assemblies of God affiliation.

Many Evangelicals already have expressed dismay at John McCain's lukewarm opposition to abortion, while they express horror at Barack Obama's wholehearted support of it. Illustrating this attitude, the SBC's Richard Land recently likened McCain to a "third-rate fireman" and Obama to a "first-rate arsonist".  Land left no doubt about his concern about both candidates' positions on abortion, but his comments also left no doubt McCain would get the nod—though a weak one—over Obama.

Some Southern Baptists even have considered boycotting the election altogether because of McCain's tepid approach to the pro-life movement.

Now enters Sarah Palin, the pro-life Roman Catholic-turned Assemblies and relatively unknown governor of Alaska. While Obama-oriented political writers at CNN, Yahoo and other media outlets roast McCain for choosing a relatively inexperienced Vice-Presidential running mate, they completely fail to note how much support Palin instantly will draw for her pro-life stand. Many voters will prefer a candidate with the right (and very strong!) stand on pro-life to a candidate with a tepid approach to pro-life issues but with many years in political life in Washington! 

When Kennedy was running in 1960, many political commentators ignored and even laughed at those Southern Baptists preachers who were up in arms over Kennedy's Catholicism. Kennedy didn't laugh. He took the matter seriously. Had he not done so, he probably wouldn't have occupied the Oval Office, given his tiny margin of victory in the general election.

Today, some news commentators are laughing at Palin's limited credentials (ignoring, of course, how even Hillary Clinton not long ago poked fun at Obama's lack of experience, too). On election day, those same commentators may find that in Sarah Palin's nomination McCain pulled off a John F. Kennedy-like move that won him the election.

Time will tell.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Differing opinions make the world go around!

Our poll on "What Should First Baptist Church of Dallas do with its Criswell College?" turned up some surprising results. Before posting the poll, I didn't think the answer that topped the final results—independence for the school—would draw more than a few votes. Actually, I thought that option was too Baylor-like for the Criswellians.

Of course, a poll is a poll is a poll. You conduct a poll to find out that which is not always obvious. This poll surely did turn up the non-obvious.

This poll carried no weight whatsoever except for the opinion of the people who regularly read this blog. Anybody who wanted to do so could vote in it. I set no preconditions, except that a person could only vote once. Through the technological wonder of Google, those who tried to vote twice were ignored and their second votes went into outer space. 

I also don't expect First Baptist Church of Dallas to pay much attention to the results, though a few members may.

 I also don't have a clue who voted or how they voted in this poll. I really don't care to know either. I just wanted to know how my readers generically feel about the issue. Google's report showed my earlier column on Criswell College was the highest-read entry to date on this blog. That surprised me not a little. I would have expected thoughtful columns on more weighty and important matters such as America's changing religious landscape and the troubles in the Republic of Georgia to have attracted the most attention. Even what I said about the firing of John Lilley as Baylor's president seemed a much more likely candidate for blog traffic than the Criswell College column. But then, I do know from my newspaper days that though church people decry controversy and try to act like they are above it, they always run toward it when it occurs within their midst.

The Criswell College poll, however, attracted an unusually high number of new visitors--far more than the original Criswell College column did. Within an hour of its posting, the number of visitors to this blog shot up dramatically. How so many people found out about the poll I'll probably never know. Some 56 people voted in the poll, but nearly 10 times that many dropped by to stare at it. I guess that's what they did, since they didn't bother to cast a ballot. Google's sleuths only recorded their silent stares. I wonder who the visitors thought I might report them to if they voted? The Dallas Police? My blog monitor shows these unnamed visitors mostly arrived from the Dallas area. No influx of Wacoans that I can tell! I suspect the visitors set sail from either Criswell College, First Baptist Church of Dallas, Southwestern Seminary, The Southern Baptists of Texas Convention—all mentioned in the poll—or a combination of all four.

While the poll carries no official weight, it does tell me something about my readers. For one thing, many of you are independent thinkers—like I am. I abhor herd mentality either among journalists who practice pack journalism or among church folks who march lockstep together or demand that others do that, too.  

Apparently you, my friends and readers, reflect my drift, too. Four of you (7% who voted) said the First Baptist-Dallas should close the school; three of you (5% of those who voted) said the church should sell it to the highest bidder; another three of you (again 5% who voted) said the status quo ought to be preserved. Surprisingly only eight of you (14% of those who voted) said the church ought to give the school to the SBTC; the day I launched the poll I thought this option would be the immediate favorite, but it was never in the running for a top spot. 

The option that managed to squeak out a distant second is the one some people are adamantly convinced will ultimately be the solution: give it to Southwestern Seminary. Those who are convinced of this are also the ones who seem to attribute every thing evil in the world to Paige Patterson, too. I just don't buy their line. He walked away from the school years ago and is now president of the world's largest theological seminary, so why would he be itching to get the smaller Criswell College back? Something about that doesn't add up. I see him more as the default player: take it in rather than see it closed or sold to the highest bidder.

Topping the poll were those who said the church should grant the school its independence. Now that's truly a novel idea! Twenty four (44% of the poll) liked this idea. That's more than the next three ideas combined! This option wasn't the majority, but it moved close to it. 

Will independence occur? Don't count on it! Knowledgeable sources have explained the issue to me. It's called money. I'm aware that the college, not the church, owns KCBI radio station. Sources note that KCBI radio is worth somewhere around $25 million. Selling the radio station would reap a nice cash reward for either the college or the church. And when big money, such as this, is involved, church groups tend to behave in strange ways. Taking a Solomonic approach is often not in the formula.

Beyond money, another reason independence for the college isn't likely to happen is that it would be too much like what Baylor did several years ago.  Remember when Herb Reynolds got his regents to vote to change the school's charter, then whisked the paperwork to Austin for recording before anyone at the BGCT or other Baptist entities knew what was happening? Criswell College graduates and staff screamed loudly about Reynolds' actions and Baylor's independence.

Though I think the idea of independence is worth serious consideration, I can't imagine the church seriously pursuing that idea.

Polls are fun. They give us something to think about.  They give readers something to do beyond just reading others' opinions. The Criswell College poll was our first for this blog. From time to time on this blog we'll be conducting more polls on different topics. In fact, we've got another one under way already.  Enjoy these as fun expression of opinion! Don't worry about my knowing who you are or how you vote. I'll only know if you tell me directly. But remember these are only polls—just a random sampling of people's opinions. And differing opinions are what make the world go around!



Monday, August 11, 2008

Faraway Georgia has had a long fascination with the U.S.

The year was 1991. The Soviet Union was nearing its final gasping breaths. By year's end the hammer-and-sickle red flag would fly no more over the Kremlin or elsewhere in the Evil Empire.

Six years earlier I had traveled to the Soviet Union to write my award-winning newspaper series about Jewish Refusniks—Soviet citizens who wanted to flee their motherland for life in either Israel or the United States but were held back by persecution and sometimes imprisonment. I traveled incognito as a tourist in a group of Texas Jews supposedly vacationing in the land of their ancestors. By day we visited tourist sites; by night we ventured from apartment to apartment for our clandestine meetings with the Refusniks. These Soviet Jews were genuinely scared to death of their political keepers; their paranoia was contagious—something we visiting Americans experienced vicariously for the first time.

This time—in December 1991—I now was among my own Baptist people. Our small delegation traveled by way of Moscow to the Republic of Georgia, one of the new countries that was emerging from the breakup of the Soviet Union. Frankly, I'd never heard of the Republic of Georgia until I was invited to join the group.

We were invited there by Georgia Baptist leaders, who feared their Orthodox brethren almost as much as they had feared their former communist masters. Georgia's Baptists wanted the five of us U.S. Baptists to talk directly with Georgia's Orthodox leader about ending what they perceived as persecution by Georgia's Orthodox majority against their tiny Baptist minority.  In short, they wanted us to bring American influence to bear on the patriarch, who in turn would influence his people to be nicer to the Georgia Baptists. For our part, we never could figure out how much influence we had, except that we were there physically. And we were Americans.

On arrival in Tblisi we thought our proposed talk with the Orthodox patriarch was our goal. Little did we realize the Georgia government was eyeing us with great curiosity and a much bigger game plan. 

I tell this story now because I believe it illustrates the dilemma the U.S. faces in light of the overreaction by Russia starting last Saturday against the little nation of Georgia over Georgia's efforts to reclaim land—called South Ossetia—it believed was stolen from it about the time we visited by revolutionaries aligned with Moscow.

As soon as we arrived in Tblisi in 1991 we started hearing "We love America. We love Americans. We want to be allied with you Americans. Please, can't you get your country to begin diplomatic relations with us?"

Within a few days of our arrival these messages were being delivered by top Georgian government officials, who seemed more than eager to clear their calendars in order to welcome a band of wandering Baptists from America. Each day the top Georgia government official wanting to meet us seemed to be a little higher up in the ranks. 

To everyone we met we kept saying, "We are here representing a large group of Baptists in America, not the U.S. government."

We decided we must be five of only a small handful of Americans in the entire country of Georgia that year. We also decided Americans were certainly greatly loved in that small, faraway country—or else somebody there sure thought they needed us awfully much.

Finally the invitation arrived for a command performance in the office of Zviad Gamsukhurdia, the country's first elected president. I must readily admit that even though I've traveled in more than 45 different countries, I'm not accustomed to spur-of-the-moment invitations to visit heads of state in their executive offices. This was a total surprise.

Richard Land, our group leader, tried to explain to the Georgian president about our interest in Orthodox persecution of Baptists. Gamsakhurdia was much more interested in whether we had connections with George H.W. Bush, then-President of the U.S, and influential people in the U.S. Congress. He specifically wanted to know if we could help him secure diplomatic recognition of Georgia by the U.S. government. Richard finally told him we would do what we could to help him—which wasn't much.

Returning in a taxi from the president's office/palace to our hotel, we were astonished to see so many military tanks and personnel on the Tblisi streets near the capital.

The next day we flew out of Tblisi to Moscow during the worst snowstorm I've ever seen on the smelliest and worst-maintained Soviet aircraft that I could possibly imagine.

Days after we met Gamsakhurdia, a coup ousted him from office. A few weeks later he and his family members all were murdered as they fled the rebels. In the upheaval the office in which we met him was burned.  

In so many ways, the Baptist trip was more unnerving than was the previous Jewish trip, which itself was hair-raising. Georgia was a strange, strange place. Men walked around holding hands with each other. They even kissed each other goodbye in very unmanly ways.  The military looked like something straight out of World War II. Why the government officials thought a tiny band of visiting Baptists from America might help them unlock their political fortunes in the U.S. would have been laughable had they not seemed to be so desperate.

Still, in 1991 the Georgians communicated beautifully several important messages: We love America. We need America. We will do anything we can to align with America. 

Why did they love and need us so much?  Probably because they hated the Soviets (translate today: Russians) so much. 

Those are the messages they still are communicating this week.

My heart goes out to the Georgians now as the Russians have taken out their pent-up frustrations on those poor people. I just wish, however, that Georgia's government had not acted so stupidly last Friday night. Didn't it know the bully in its back yard was still a real threat and the country its people love so much was half a world away mired down in its own problems including Iraq and Afghanistan? 

But now that the Russians have over-reacted so severely, maybe the Georgians will still get what they've sought for so long—the reciprocal U.S. interest in them accompanied by sympathy, awareness, and massive financial aid. Sometimes you have to lose in order to win. In this situation, Georgia still may turn out to be the big winner in its losing war with the Russians.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Criswell College battle is yet another example of the Orwellian drama

(Shortly after posting this blog, I received word that Jerry Johnson this morning resigned as president of Criswell College. See

For months the rumor mill has flourished with juicy morsels about the simmering battle forming behind the scenes between First Baptist Church of Dallas' new pastor, Robert Jeffress, and the leaders of the college created by First Baptist Church of Dallas honoring its legendary and controversial pastor, Wallie Amos Criswell.

Despite efforts to keep the brouhaha out of the public arena, the story last week finally leaked to the Dallas Morning News, so now Baptist Press and other media this week are picking it up.

On the surface, the issue seems to be about one issue: money. Like so many big-church preachers, Jeffress wants to build yet another monstrosity of a church building. Some say costs for his new building may run $150 million or higher. Depending on whose version of the rumors you believe, Jeffress either wants to sell the college and its popular Christian radio station, KCBI, for cash for the expansion, or wants to get rid of both institutions to get rich First Baptist Dallas members who presently underwrite the college and radio station to shift their giving to the church's new building fund.

Jeffress denies the rumors—all except his desire to build the new monstrously expensive worship facility. 

The school's president, Jerry Johnson, weighed in publicly last weekend and undergirded the allegations against Jeffress. So have some school trustees. They also allege that Jeffress is using his influence at the church to load the school's trustee board with like-minded individuals committed to his cause. 

Why should anybody care whether First Baptist Dallas sells, disposes of, or junks what is tantamount to a small four-year, 350-student Bible college?

Beyond the jockeying going on between Jeffress and Johnson is a significant point lost in all the talk about money: Had Criswell College not existed, the conservatives (a.k.a. the fundamentalists) probably wouldn't be ruling and reigning in the Southern Baptist Convention today. The school played (and its former staff and students continue to play) a crucial role in providing the personpower and political muscle that was necessary to literally remove the SBC from the hands of the so-called moderates and place the reins of power in the hands of the conservatives.

Paige Patterson, now president of Southwestern Baptist Seminary in Fort Worth, was once the president of Criswell College. From that post, he joined with Judge Paul Pressler of Houston in launching the so-called Conservative Resurgence (a.k.a. The Fundamentalist Takeover) of the SBC. Patterson's administrative team, faculty, and students today hold the reins of political power in the SBC. For instance, Richard Land, now exec of the SBC's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, once was Patterson's right-hand man as dean of the school. David Dockery, president of Tennessee Baptist's Union University and one of the SBC's leading theologians, once was a Criswell College faculty member. SBC trustee boards and SBC agencies are filled with Criswell College graduates, who occupy strategic power positions—far beyond the percentage of power positions occupied by any other Baptist college or university.

Johnson himself left an indelible historic mark on the SBC. He was chair of the Southern Seminary trustee board that trumped the mother seminary's moderate leadership and catapaulted the conservatives into power in Louisville. 

So this is no little ordinary Bible college that Jeffress is messing with. This is the school which housed some of the key chiefs and many of the important warriors of the Conservative Resurgence. And, by the way, Jeffress now occupies the office once held by the granddaddy of the Conservative Resurgence, W.A. Criswell.

Granted, many of the players in the Conservative Resurgence now have moved on to bigger and better institutions. Their new jobs are accompanied by bigger and better salaries, perks, benefits, and political prestige. But Criswell College is the place where it all began for many of them.

Given this background I find great irony in the fact that the battle now rages over the college's future. It also raises the question whether all along the college was merely a Trojan Horse created as a staging ground for the troops to assault their moderate foes.  If it is not worth saving now, what was its purpose originally?

This latest battle pitting SBC conservatives against each other over the future of Criswell College is one more example of a pattern I've been observing among the conservatives for several years now. 

In my book, "Witness to the Truth", I note how the Conservative Resurgence reminds me more and more of the pigs in George Orwell's classic "Animal Farm", itself a satire on Soviet communism. In that story, the farm animals rise up against their human masters and overthrow them on a platform which points out the evil the humans had committed.  Slowly at first, then eventually pall-mall, the animals—led by the pigs—become every bit as contentious, if not more so, than the humans they had overthrown, including squabbles among themselves. In my book I reported that I see many indications today that the conservatives have taken on the role of the pigs in their own version of "Animal Farm". High on my list of reasons is the squabbling occurring both publicly and privately among the ruling conservatives themselves.

As the scrape over Criswell College unfolds, we apparently need to score yet another one for the pigs!