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After reading an article in Politico.com, I got curious about the relationship between President-Elect Obama and Southern Baptist leader Richard Land.  Land, who is a well-known voice in Christian conservative circles, has indicated that Obama's staff reached out to him after the election.

He’s done a pretty good job making it clear that he doesn’t have the knife out," said Land. "Just because you disagree with him on some issues doesn’t mean you can’t agree with him on other issues."

All of this makes it curious to me that Land and his Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission would criticize Obama for supporting increased access to SCHIP for children.

Jump with me...

It's no secret that Richard Land is leading the Southern Baptist Convention in a politically conservative direction.  Ever since the advent of the Christian Coalition in the late 1970s, we saw a swing to the right by leaders such as Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, and Pat Robertson.  These leaders, concerned about the "gay agenda," and the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision, felt that we needed to "take America back" and vigorously supported Ronald Reagan's candidacy for president.

For my part, this political movement hit close to home.  My grandfather, the chair of the GOP in Marion County, Iowa, was a farmer with an 8th grade education.  A man of devout faith, Grandpa was hard-working, no-nonsense, and strongly committed to family values.  He also pushed strongly for conservative ideology, and became frustrated by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because he sincerely believed that African-Americans were inferior and under the judgment of God.  He could quote chapter and verse about the curse on Negroes which came out of the book of Genesis and the story of Noah.

Grandpa was committed to ensuring that all of his kids and grandkids had access to educational opportunities that he never had.  A shrewd manager and tireless worker, he saved and invested so that all of us could attend Christian schools.  He studied the Bible and listened to what his pastor taught.  He was a racist, but in his mind he was a racist because of Christian principles and teachings.

My father, who attended a mostly-white college in the upper midwest, was fortunate to have an African-American roommate while pursuing higher education in the 1960s.  His horizons expanded by the opportunity to read and study, Dad often recounts the story when he asked his housemates if they had any "colored laundry" to put in the wash.  "That's BLACK!" replied his housemate.

Dad ended up using his education to provide educational opportunities to underprivileged children in Minnesota.  As a member of the National Teacher Corps, he worked in inner city public schools for over 30 years.

The question of how Christians should engage with the culture was a generational issue for my family.  We didn't discuss it much growing up, but the paradoxes were clear.  Should Christians retreat to the safety of private schools and reject the influence of "big government" as it tries to force integration and legalize abortion and promote the "gay agenda"?  Or should we actively work to engage the culture and reach out to transform it through acts of generosity, service, and charity?

For Southern Baptists, the answer is obvious.  (I should note that I did not grow up Southern Baptist, but I am surrounded by them in Tennessee.)  Christians should be "separate" from the culture but should call the culture to task for its moral failures and promote the truth of Christ.  But Christians should also engage politically to minimize government influence and promote the rights of Christians to be intolerant of what they perceive as sinful behavior.  Acts of generosity, service, and charity should not come through the government, but rather through the private acts of private individuals.  In the Southern Baptist perspective, we should not try to legislate our way to economic justice, but rather should create economic justice through the work of the local church.

There's just one problem.

As we've seen in the past several months, the slush funds, hedge funds, banks, and corporate CEOs have done quite well as the economy has careened into crisis.  The housing market has collapsed as out-of-control homebuilding has led to a glut of available homes, and now supply has outstripped demand.  Meanwhile, the stock market has struggled as we've been bogged down by two military conflicts, a steady rise in the price of oil, and a lack of regulation on our financial services sector after the repeal of Glass-Stegall.

Deregulation of the banking and financial services industries has led to disastrous results for America's families, especially those who are close to retirement.  In 2000, and again in 2008, we have seen a precipitous drop in consumer confidence and losses in retirement accounts.  Those who had stocks in their financial portfolios have seen a 30-40% drop in their portfolio value, just as our baby boomer generation is about to turn 65.

I find it troubling and disappointing that, at this time, the Southern Baptist Convention would try to attack Democrats and President-Elect Obama for trying to provide a financial safety net to children and families.  Let's take a closer look at the specific complaints of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission:

Richard Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, followed with a Jan. 15 letter to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, asking him to work against the House-passed bill.

Among the reasons for ERLC opposition to the House-approved legislation, Land said in the letter, is its failure to ensure low-income children are covered while expanding potentially eligible families to include those who make more than $80,000 a year.

"We fully support continuing the program that has helped millions of impoverished families provide health insurance for their children," Land said. "But given the economic situation our country is currently facing, we need to make sure that our scarce federal money is directed toward those most in need. Legislation such as [the House-approved bill] does not do that."

(Source: Evangelicals reject SCHIP insurance flaws, January 16, 2009)

I think it's worth asking the question:  Who are those most in need?

To my way of thinking, those most in need are the families with children, trying to make ends meet, sandwiched between an older adult generation with drastically reduced savings and a younger generation facing the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.  While you'd think that Richard Land would support Obama's policies which support and strengthen families, Land seems to be saying that we should be spending more money on the poorest of the poor and less money on those at risk of falling into poverty.

Rational people can disagree about the answer to this question.  I don't deny the validity of the ERLC's concerns, especially in light of the financial crisis.  But I have to wonder why this issue would be the one which Richard Land seeks to address.

Why isn't Land calling out for a crackdown on the excesses of CEOs?  Why doesn't Land have anything to say about the lack of accountability in the TARP bailout?  The ERLC's legislative agenda in 2009 does nothing to address abuses of power, torture, rendition, or abuses of civil rights.  It does nothing to address the failure of wages to keep up with productivity, or the dramatic increase in CEO pay while Americans' jobs are sent overseas.  The 2009 legislative agenda does, however, attack the "Assault on Traditional Marriage and the Homosexual Agenda" and opposes the "Employee Free Choice Act" because it would strengthen unions.

The Southern Baptist Convention has lost its distinctiveness, and is now trying to "reverse drops in membership, baptisms, and giving," according to the cover story in today's Tennessean.

More than 9,000 congregations, or almost a quarter of all Southern Baptist churches, reported no baptisms in 2007.  And, in that year, only 8.3 percent of the churches were responsible for 49.8 percent of the convention's baptisms.

The Southern Baptists are facing an identity crisis.  Do they belong to the political right-wing, or do they belong to Jesus?  How much longer can the Southern Baptist Convention identify itself as a front organization for the Republican party before they realize that the world has passed them by?

Originally posted to Benintn on Sat Jan 17, 2009 at 12:18 PM PST.

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