For several years now, leaders of the religious right have assumed for themselves the role of advocates for morality in America. Their vision of what is virtuous and true impacts almost every area of our personal and cultural lives.
With one glaring exception.
When it comes to addressing issues of economic injustice, the religious right has been amazingly silent. Amazing because the Bible is not at all silent on this matter. From something as basic as paying workers a fair wage, right down to caring for the “widow and the orphan,” the scriptures portray God as aggressively concerned about all things economic.
The reluctance on the part of religious conservatives to address economic injustice is puzzling. They certainly are not timid about diving in on other social issues they deem as moral. Take, for example, Alabama Baptists and the battle against gambling.
For as long as there have been efforts to introduce a lottery or casino-styled gambling in Alabama, Baptists have expressed opposition. In 1999 they rallied en masse to stop then Gov. Siegelman's effort to institute a statewide lottery. The energy and enthusiasm with which Baptists pursued the gambling industry standsas a case study in righteous passion.
More recently Baptists and others have been working to stem the tide of bingo-based slot machines. At a rally in St. Clair County recently, leaders from the Alabama Baptist State Convention left no doubt about their determination to stop the spread of gambling.
According to the Alabama Baptist, the state newspaper representing more than 3,500 Baptist churches, Joe Bob Mizzell, director of the office of Christian Ethics, portrayed gambling as causing poverty, crime, immorality and corruption in government.
"If I love my neighbor as myself," Mizzell is reported to have said, "I'm not going to take from him or her without giving them of equal value. The gambling industry takes and doesn't care about the individual or the principle of love, but I do and the people of Alabama do."
On the issue of gambling as all take and no give, he is right. He is also right that gambling afflicts the poor most of all. And of course he is right that one of the primary callings we share as Christians is to love our neighbor. Jesus made that part of the Great Commandment.
But here is where credibility breaks down. Religious groups are more than eager to love their neighbors when it comes to regulating personal behavior. But when it comes time to take on the big issues of social and economic injustice, conservative Christians begin to sound more like a certain character in one of Jesus' parables who was heard to say, "And who is my neighbor?"
When will Baptists or any other conservative Christian group rise up with righteous passion to criticize Alabama's grossly unfair income tax system? Even though some improvements have been made in recent years, Alabama continues to tax the working poor far below the poverty line. Where gambling has the potential to make people poor, our tax system actually does help keep the poor in poverty.
There is a ring of hollow insincerity to say we don't want our neighbors victimized by gambling, but don't seem to care that they are victimized when they go to work. Baptists and others are not wrong to oppose gambling, but they are wrong to ignore other factors in our state that impact our impoverished neighbors.
And sometimes the inconsistency looks suspiciously like hypocrisy.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.