Unless presidential candidates want a spiritual smack down, they should avoid talking to Southern Baptist Convention president Frank Page, who failed to retain the pastoral confidentiality of two conversations and then boasted to other pastors about his soul-winning ways. In both cases, Page elevated his own evangelistic credentials and degraded the spiritual character of candidates.
The SBC leader bragged to a gathering of Southern Baptist fundamentalist pastors in Oklahoma that in a private, two-hour meeting with Rudy Giuliani, a Roman Catholic, that he “shared Christ with him.”
Page’s perception about Giuliani’s lack of Christian faith was so strong that at the end of the meeting he recounted: “Rudy, I’m not going to leave this place unless I give you an opportunity to pray with me to receive Jesus as your savior. Would you do that with me Rudy?”
Page said Giuliani rejected his invitation to salvation: “He said, ‘No, Frank, I’m not ready to do that. My daddy knows Jesus like that, but I’m not ready for that.'”
Undeterred, Page, the pastor of First Baptist Church in Taylors, S.C., said he gave Giuliani his cell phone number and encouraged him to call when he was ready to talk about Jesus.
Converting Catholics to Christianity is rooted in the widely held belief among fundamentalist Baptists that Catholicism is a false faith. One SBC leader, Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, even said on “Larry King Live” that “I believe the Roman church is a false church and it teaches a false gospel.”
Baptist theological exclusivity also found expression in Page’s recollection to the Oklahoma preachers of his face-to-face question to Sen. John McCain, a professing Episcopalian who attends a Southern Baptist church that leans towards moderation. Page claimed he asked, “Who owns your soul, John McCain?”
Page’s theology of exclusivity and inquisition isn’t surprising. His deficient pastoral confidentiality is.
It’s one thing for the president of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination to meet with presidential candidates.
Preachers and politicians meeting together or posing for photographs on the church steps is an age-old practice that validates both professions. It makes church folk think the preacher is so relevant that the politician needs their advice and support. It makes the same folk think the politician is one of them.
It’s another matter altogether for a preacher to share publicly an exchange of a spiritual nature with a politician, such as the status of one’s faith. Private spiritual discussions should remain private.
As troubling as Page’s breach of pastoral ethics is, his theological naivetÃ© is also disturbing.
Page claimed that he warned the former New York mayor that unless he had Jesus in his heart he would never be a really great leader.
Having Jesus in one’s heart is a pious expression that means one is a real Christian whose every thought and action is governed by Jesus Christ, ensuring that one does the right thing. Doing God’s will leads to greatness.
Page believes that only real Christians make great presidents. Yet one of the most authentic Christian presidents at every standard, Jimmy Carter the Baptist, is considered by the SBC leadership as a failed president. And President Bush, who makes claims to Jesus in his life, is anything but a great leader doing the right thing in Iraq or on the environmental front or with children at risk to ill-health.
Some fundamentalist and conservative evangelical leaders are beginning to recognize that doctrinal purity is no guarantee of political skills. Such is the case of the leaders of South Carolina’s fundamentalist Bob Jones University, who have endorsed Mitt Romney, a candidate whose Mormon faith is considered way outside the boundaries of Christianity.
As the Christian Right leaders haggle over whether the Republican presidential nominee needs to be a real Christian, Christian pastors should prioritize the confidentiality of private spiritual discussions over the potential for political gain.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.