The Southern Baptist Convention has stepped up its criticism of the National Association of Evangelicals, perhaps a surprising action given the fact that for the longest time they were conjoint cultural twins, not identical theological twins but close enough.
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Both had a love affair with Ronald Reagan.
When Reagan died NAE called him “a great, if not the greatest, President of the 20th century.”
The NAE statement said “Reagan was one of the best friends that the National Association of Evangelicals ever had,” noting that he addressed the annual NAE meeting every year of his presidency.
The SBC passed a resolution at its 2004 annual meeting praising Reagan as “a man of prayer and strong faith in God,” who “exemplified the hallmarks of a Christian leader” and “held strong belief in the Bible and its answers to life’s problems, having proclaimed 1983 as the Year of the Bible.”
The SBC pledged “to perpetuate the positive values so faithfully exemplified by the life of President Ronald Wilson Reagan.”
Both the SBC and NAE blessed George Bush over John Kerry during the 2004 presidential campaign, citing abortion, stem cell research and moral values.
“The Southern Baptist Convention and the NAE need to draw closer together,” said Ted Haggard, president of NAE in 2003. “Both need the other. The Southern Baptist Convention needs to connect with the rest of the evangelical body of believers, and the rest of the evangelical body of believers needs to be there with the Southern Baptist Convention.”
The former NAE president said, “The Southern Baptist Convention…is not a member of NAE but we still speak for them since they are evangelicals and we are the National Association of Evangelicals.”
The SBC’s communication’s arm, Baptist Press, didn’t even flinch at that comment, offering no corrective about NAE speaking for the SBC.
That’s not the case now, however. The SBC doesn’t approve of what the NAE is saying and resembles Esau hunting down his brother Jacob for wrong doing.
An SBC professor shot at the NAE’s anti-torture statement two weeks ago, calling it a “moral travesty” that was confusing and harming the “evangelical witness in the culture.”
“The danger of the NAE’s diatribe,” he said, “is that it threatens to undermine Christian moral witness in contemporary culture by dividing evangelicals.”
In another shot, Baptist Press carried an article a letter from Christian Right leaders, including Southern Baptist signatories, calling on NAE to stifle Richard Cizik, vice president of government relations in the NAE’s Washington office, for speaking out on the need to address global warming.
Baptist Press quoted a spokesman from the extreme rightwing Institute on Religion and Democracy, saying that “Cizik continues to step outside the approved policy areas of the NAE.”
The IRD vice president accused Cizik of working with on a petition that “targets President Bush, as if he were the main obstacle blocking humanitarian intervention to stop the Darfur genocide.”
When NAE refused to heed that request to rein in Cizik on global warming, Baptist Press carried a follow-up article which cited an SBC agency head saying that most evangelicals “do not take their marching orders from the NAE. Southern Baptists certainly do not.”
Through Baptist Press, an SBC leader criticized the NAE for its lack of support for Israel in the war last summer with Hezbollah in Lebanon, charging that “the silence of the NAE is a guilty silence.”
What explains the war of words over the heart of evangelical conservatism?
One answer is the SBC’s sibling jealously. NAE has double the number of members, more churches, more supportive organizations and far more racial diversity. NAE has begun to receive more media attention, challenging the SBC’s near monopoly on the attentiveness of the national press related to evangelicals. The SBC wants neither to share the spotlight nor for its members to hear that other evangelical conservatives draw different conclusions on social issues.
A second answer is political loyalty. SBC has been the most faithful of all evangelical denominations to the White House. It’s not surprising that the attacks on NAE come at a time when Bush’s popularity is sinking with failures in Iraq, Darfur and Lebanon, as well as growing criticism for inaction on global warming. The once dependable servant, the NAE, is distancing itself from the Bush administration, necessitating the SBC’s need to criticize NAE.
A third answer is functional exclusivity. While both claim to be evangelical, they don’t share a common dictionary for what evangelical means. SBC is more of a fundamentalist organization with narrow parameters of inclusion than an evangelical organization with broad boundaries. Charismatic members, for example, are unwelcome in the SBC. Yet they sit at the NAE table.
The General Association of General Baptists and the Baptist General Conference also sit at the NAE table and belong to the Baptist World Alliance, from which the SBC withdrew from membership. Ironically and significantly, NAE’s president is pastor of Wooddale Church which affiliates with the Baptist General Conference.
The SBC and NAE are on different trajectories, suggesting further disagreements and more Southern Baptist attacks.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.