Skip to site content

Southern Baptists Stand in Bush’s Bellicose Corner

Standing four-square in Bush’s bellicose corner are the Southern Baptists. Not all 15 million of them, of course, but at least the two score or so men who run the nation’s largest evangelical denomination.

On one point he is right: Saddam Hussein is a mean and dangerous tyrant.  <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
Whether that justifies an American invasion of Mesopotamia is another matter. Saddam is, after all, no more and no less than another in a long line of dangerous dictators that have managed to seize and sustain power in some weak and wasted country of the world. 
Bush is desperately seeking support for his war: in Congress and the United Nations, within the media and among the American people.    
Standing four-square in Bush’s bellicose corner are the Southern Baptists. Not all 15 million of them, of course, but at least the two score or so men who run the nation’s largest evangelical denomination. 
They were the first religious group to declare for Bush. Any attack on the people of Iraq, they said, would be consistent with the conditions of a “just war” as understood and articulated by traditional Christian ethics. 
Politicians need the imprimatur of some pope or prelate. It provides moral justification for whatever they have decided to do.  
This need for religious endorsement posed a problem for the president. All other ordained and organized leaders turned him down: Roman Catholic pontiff and bishops, the National Council of Churches, even his own Anglican Communion (to say nothing of Hindu, Muslim and Jewish leaders). With one accord, they told the most powerful man in the world, “Seek peace, not war.” 
But not the Southern Baptists.  
“Bomb Iraq,” they have said, offering a military version of the “go for the jugular” metaphor they used a few years ago to wage religious warfare against their own people.  
Now comes further evidence of how Bush and the Baptist boys have bonded so tightly on matters of life and death.  
On one and the same day two pronouncements were made: one by the Bush team, of their intention to expand the use of the death penalty in criminal proceedings; and one by the Baptist team, of their support for capital punishment as “ethically consistent” and “required by a biblical worldview.” 
The assertions of Bush and the Baptists fly in the face of both legal evidence and public opinion. Just weeks ago, the Republican governor of Illinois commuted all death sentences in that state because too many innocent people had been executed. 
The very phrase employed by the Baptists to justify state-sanctioned killing (“ethically consistent”) alludes to the phrase written a few years ago by editor Jim Wallis of Sojourners magazine (“consistent life ethic”). He startled the evangelical world by linking opposition to abortion with resistance to capital punishment. It is precisely the position argued firmly and forcefully by the Roman Catholic Church. 
Such data does not faze a president whose vision of justice is best enacted by the southwest sharpshooter who saunters into town surrounded by a gang of gospel gunslingers. All are wearing white hats, of course, and are carrying a pocket edition of the New Testament, the kind with the words of Jesus printed in red ink.  
Behind the barn and out of sight, they pause to pray and, perhaps (were the full truth told), plunge the president into a makeshift baptistery—Baptist-style, of course, all the way under and up dripping wet.  
Except, I suspect, for the gold-plated pistols held high overhead. 
Dwight Moody is dean of the chapel at Georgetown College in Georgetown, Ky.