My father, Southern Baptists, and the battle for the soul of America

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My father was a music minister for many years before he became an educator. In his and my mother's accounts, the Southern Baptist congregations he served were too often torn by dissension.

The Southern Baptist Convention is the largest Protestant denomination in the United States. Once he became a layman, although still a song-leader in churches we attended, my father witnessed with deep concern changes in the SBC starting in the 1970s. A growing conservative element purged seminaries of perceived liberals, and even moderate leaders found themselves fired or pushed into retirement. Dissenting churches left the SBC to form other fellowships.

My father, a lifelong conservative Republican but a moderate Baptist, voiced to me his fear that the core concepts of "priesthood of believers" (equality of members, pastors not overly empowered) and local autonomy of churches were being ignored by the new leadership.

What happened with Southern Baptists and like-minded fundamentalists has occurred on a larger scale with American politics.

It used to be that the 50-yard line of the political game was where compromise happened.

Liberal Republicans helped pass the Civil Rights Act, while conservative Democrats in the South, whose bigotry sharply limited access for African Americans, did back the GI Bill and some social reforms.

It wasn't an ideal situation and many problems remained, but it seemed that the wheels of progress were moving forward. Then the wheels started coming off. Conservative Democrats, whose cultural amnesia kept them from honestly approaching the racism of our past and present, swung more and more to Republican candidates.

Reagan Democrats were in the main conservative Protestants and Catholics who decided they could co-exist with country club Episcopalians, after all.

The midfield stripe of compromise moved further right, just as had happened with the Southern Baptists. Republicans, having claimed the Southern white core, nailed down the electoral numbers and appeared to have won the patriotism battle.

It didn't matter who served in the real wars during this time, who paid the tax bills and saw their bridges unrepaired, whose wages sank and whose values were questioned - if you were a certain kind of Christian voter concerned about where your country was headed, the Republican Party had an easy, pulse-racing response:

Vote for the GOP and to hell with compromise.

The 50-yard line began shifting further right. Just as moderate and liberal Baptists fled the SBC, a similar flood occurred with the political parties until today you see a rough match-up in the electoral map between the 1950s and 2012 - you have but to reverse the reds and blues.

And yet. There are born-again Christians in the Democratic Party. Some atheists remain in the Republican Party. It's easy to shoot out windows in a Democratic campaign office or write hate mail to a Republican as long as you think "they" have nothing in common with you.

I campaigned for Barack Obama in 2008. That election represented my sincere effort to approach the compromise point in politics. During that time, a passerby saw on the back of my Jeep a Texas Tech license plate frame and an Obama bumper sticker. He was stunned by this and asked how I could be both a Red Raider fan and an Obama supporter. We respected one another; we didn't cast stones. I imagine him reporting me to his wife. "You would not believe what I saw today."

The 2007-2008 financial meltdown saw a few morally suspect people bankrupt the country in the course of enriching themselves, while millions of often spiritually upright Americans saw their savings and lives wrecked.

Sinful liars in sober suits sold upwardly hopeful families a bill of goods - and got away with it. You could almost write a parable about it, but there's plenty along that line in religious texts already.

All those families stuck with underwater mortgages were ignorant or unlucky-this is the narrative of conservative media. Bad breaks happen. Nothing to see here. Move along.

And yet. The people who lost everything and who struggle today - they have been sinned against, if you want to adhere to the letter of the (religious) law.

As an adult, I converted to Judaism. I know well the various controversies in my adopted faith. No religion, no spiritual pursuit is free of human ego and doctrinal disputes.

But when I see politicians like Rand Paul, who espouses the beliefs of arch-atheist Ayn Rand, try to mix that toxic brew with Christian rhetoric, it appalls me. My father visited people in jail and tithed money to the church - admittedly to the detriment of his struggling family - and he was also for civil rights during a hostile time. To the end of his life, my father, who in retirement became a pastor to rural churches, stayed the course with his faith. His faith was expressed through songs and through action.

It is one of life's ironies that the political system known as socialism is pictured in this country as being anti-religion, when it is anything but.

You'll find many core principles of religious faith in the words of socialist writers - the difference being that God is in the details, not on the billboard sign.

What's in the heart doesn't always fit the stereotype on either side of the political divide. We have many names for the Almighty, and many paths that people choose to take, or not take, toward that ideal.

The battle that some on the right think is going on - and you have only to watch their media outlets for examples - isn't between the godly and the godless, nor is it, as some on the left would have it, between the apostles of greed and fair play progressives.

It's about what we do. I might consider myself to be a faithful Christian, but if I also helped cause massive pollution of drinking water in West Virginia, my faith didn't stop me from doing harm to others.

A Hindu could be the surgeon who saves your life. Her faith is crucial to her, but it's a detail. Her action is what matters for you.

The soul of America is what you find when people strive to make it a better, more equitable place. That great Irving Berlin song is both a request and a promise: God, bless America. Please. Bless it as we, the faithless and the faithful, seek a greater union between those who struggle in low-wage jobs and those who hide their wealth in off-shore bank accounts.

Because if you love this land, then you do something to make it better. For you, it might be a voter registration drive. Or being more helpful to people in the course of your work. Tipping more. Joining movements. Observing boycotts. Opposing wars. You'll find ways to make a difference, both by yourself and with others.

And may I strive in my own life to be more like my father, who blessed America, the first year of integration, by volunteering to drive the school bus into a poor minority neighborhood. He chose love over hatred.

God in the details, but America in action.

Photo: Highway 287, between Memphis and Childress in western Texas. cobalt123 CC

 

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