Sunday, February 24, 2008

"Essence of union of church and state"

There is a quote concerning the separation of church and state that I am going to relay in a moment. But first, I noticed that the Faith-Based Initiative is back in the news in recent weeks. On January 29 President Bush celebrated the seventh anniversary of this program which channels federal funds to religious organizations that provide certain services. Last Thursday featured a Q&A with John Dilulio, the first director of the Faith-Based Initiative, on the future of the program after Bush leaves office. On January 29 Dilulio along with David Kuo, former deputy director of the Faith-Based Initiative, wrote a New York Times Op-Ed in which they were critical of Bush's efforts in this area but they voiced support for the concept. Then, on February 3, Jay Hein, current director of the Faith-Based Initiative, responded to Kuo and Dilulio's Op-Ed with a defense of this Bush legacy at this point.

All three editions of the Baptist Faith and Message (1925, 1963 and 2000) thankfully contain this simple but profound sentence: "Church and state should be separate." This brings me to that quote I mentioned above. Baptist hero E. Y. Mullins in his book entitled The Axioms of Religion said, "Direct gifts of money to religious bodies by the general government is of the essence of union of church and state."

Friday, February 15, 2008

Advocacy in action

I did something new for me earlier this week: I lobbied a couple of members of congress.

I was privileged to participate in Advocacy in Action, sponsored by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) and Bread for the World (BFW). The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina (CBFNC) invited me to this event and took care of my travel to and from Washington, DC where the meeting was held. Numerous pastors and curriculum writers of the CBF attended Advocacy in Action. There is a lot I could say about this trip but, for now at least, I will limit myself to my lobbying efforts.

In 2000 the United States was one of 189 nations to adopt the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) of the United Nations (UN) which are eight objectives designed to improve the quality of life of millions of poor people around the world by the year 2015. In a speech delivered in September of 2005 at UN headquarters, President George W. Bush stated, "To spread a vision of hope, the United States is determined to help nations that are struggling with poverty. We are committed to the Millennium Development Goals." So, under two different administrations, one Democratic and one Republican, this nation has affirmed its commitment to the MDGs.

The Coordinating Council of the CBF endorsed the MDGs in October of 2007. In the church I serve we included the efforts of Baptist World Aid to achieve the MDGs in our World Hunger Offering of 2007.

Certainly the MDG's are worthy objectives for Christians. Jesus said that we should see his face in the faces of the poor and the sick and to help them accordingly (Mat. 25:31-46). However, as stated in an article in the Texas Baptist Standard last month, helping the poor effectively "requires response from both congregations and government." Jimmy Dorrell, executive director of Mission Waco, pointed to research suggesting that "each church, synagogue and mosque in America would have to contribute $300,000 each year to fund the basic poverty-relief programs provided by the government." No wonder Dorrell said that "people who say only the church, and not the government, should care for the needs of poor people aren’t thinking clearly."

So, as a Christian, I must help the poor generouly. As a pastor I must lead a congregation to help the poor generously. And, as a citizen, I must encourage the government to help the poor generously. It is the last of these duties that received some attention earlier this week.

On Tuesday morning Advocacy in Action participants assembled at the headquarters of BFW. It was there that I learned that the U.S. is not on track to do its part in achieving the MDGs. We currently devote less that one-half of one percent of the federal budget to poverty-focused development assistance. A recent study reveals that this nation needs to add $25 billion to poverty relief efforts in order meet our commitments. I was asked to speak to a couple of members of congress about adding only a portion of this amount, $5 billion, to the budget for fiscal year 2009.

Armed with talking points we struck out for Capitol Hill. First I, along with five other pastors, met with a staffer of Senator Elizabeth Dole. In addition to the budget request already mentioned, we were asked to chat with senators about the Global Poverty Act which is currently before that body.

The Global Poverty Act (GPA) would make the first MDG a part of officail U.S. policy and require the development of a coordinated strategy to achieve this through aid, debt relief, and trade policies. The first MDG is to cut in half the number of people who are hungry and living on less than $1 a day. The GPA passed the House in September of 2007. We were to ask Sen. Dole to become a co-sponsor to this legislation and, of course, to otherwise support it.

I was designated the leader of the delegation visiting Sen. Dole's office, but all of us got to speak with the aide. She was very attentive to our concerns. At one point she mentioned how gratifying it was to listen to evangelicals that have a passion for helping those in poverty. We were told that our message would be delivered to Sen. Dole. I asked the aide if she would relay to me Sen. Dole's response and she said that she would.

Then I was off to the office of Congressman Mike McIntyre where I met with one of his staffers. I was accompanied by a lady from BFW as was the case with the delegation that visited Sen. Dole. Once again I experienced a warm and attentive reception. I was told that my request would be given to Rep. McIntyre. Again I asked that the response be relayed to me and I was told that it would be.

I believe very strongly in the separation of church and state. However, this safeguard to our liberty does not mean that Christians have no voice in the public square. The government should in no way endorse any religion and I should not ask it to. Yet, as a citizen of this country and a follower of Jesus, I have a responsibility to speak up where Christain duty and governmental duty intersect.

The MDGs line up well with the teachings of Jesus. They have been affirmed by a mission body that I support and by the government of the nation in which I live. The church I serve should do more to reach these goals and so should the government of the nation in which I live. As a church we will consider ways that we can do more to achieve these Christ-like objectives. I am thankful to the CBF and BFW for helping me to ask the government to do more as well. I learned a lot and I had fun too.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Next steps for the New Baptist Covenant

I know, I'm talking about the next steps for the participants in the New Baptist Covenant Celebration (NBCC) when I never really blogged about the meeting itself. But here's the thing . . . One of the main objectives of the NBCC was and is forming new relationships. I didn't want to miss my chance at the meeting to connect with new people and to re-connect with old friends by being holed up somewhere staring at my laptop. Then, when I got back home, there were pressing pastoral matters to handle, so there wasn't time. Read the great blogs on the NBCC of Tony Cartledge and John Pierce to get a report on the gathering itself.

On the meeting, I will only agree with Walter Shurden that the origin, nature, purpose and mission of the NBCC along with the opportunity for racial reconciliation and gender recognition make the gathering a most significant event in Baptist history. I cannot recall ever going to a convention-style Baptist event and coming away feeling so good about being Baptist.

While I have not had time or made time to seriously blog on the New Baptist Covenant (NBC) until now, I did, at nearly midnight last Sunday night, compose an email that I sent to the organizers of the gathering. Besides thanking them for their efforts, I responded to Jimmy Allen's request for suggestions on where we go from here found on page 60 of the NBCC program.

At the Mainstream Baptist breakfast held in conjunction with the Atlanta meeting, Walter "Buddy" Shurden did a little comparing and contrasting of the NBCC to the Triennial Convention of 1814. In that discussion he mentioned that there will be no "super convention" to come out of the NBCC. Shurden noted that there was no national Baptist body before 1814, only regional associations. Now there are plenty of national Baptist bodies so we really do not need another one. This comment started me thinking that perhaps we need a little bit of the reverse of the Triennial Convention.

It was so great to sit in meetings with Baptists whose skin is a different color than mine. I made some effort in Atlanta to strike up conversations with Baptists of other races. These conversations were wonderful, but altogether too brief and too superficial. Between sessions I often ran into fellow Baptists of the same denominational grouping and same skin color that I had not seen in a while and spent time with them. It was nice to talk with these old friends, but I sense that perhaps an opportunity was missed to reach across some old lines in a more profound way.

What if the NBC could spawn regional connections that cross old lines among Baptists? I am a white Baptist. Wouldn't it be great if I could reach out to African-American Baptists in this region who attended the NBC or who might be interested in attending a future convocation? We could get to know one another and maybe facilitate cooperation on local mission projects. Perhaps there could be joint worship and fellowship events.

Then, maybe in three years, there would be another national convocation. Maybe I would then travel to that event with a new African-American Baptist friend. Maybe instead of renewing only old acquaintances with only my fellow white friends of the same denominational group I would start running into black Baptists with whom I connected through regional NBC efforts to work together and get to know each other.

At the breakfast meeting mentioned above Shurden said that the NBC, rather than being about forming some new denominational structure, is "an effort to say something together about what we should be doing together." I think he's right and what happened in Atlanta was nothing short of miraculous in that regard. Is there a way for us to move beyond "saying" to "doing" more together through regional connections?

I assume, through the registration process, there is a data base of names and addresses of NBCC attendees. Is it possible to identify regional groupings of NBCC participants? Can potential facilitators be contacted to investigate bringing these Baptists together to discuss the possibilities of fellowship and cooperation across old Baptist lines in keeping with the spirit of the NBCC?

Maybe in a particular locale the only participants are all white or all black. Could those Baptists get together and discuss ways to deliberately reach across racial lines to share the message of the NBC with a view toward local fellowship and cooperation and perhaps participation in a convocation in 2011?

I am not suggesting any formal regional structure for the NBC. Let the area connections evolve as they will. In some cases there may be only one white Baptist pastor and one black Baptist pastor who didn't know each other before and they will form a relationship and explore ways for their two congregations to get together. In other cases perhaps the grouping will be larger and it may, on its own, decide to elect a leader and develop more structure for working together.

I know that what I suggest is no small task, but it may be possible and it may be the only way for us to try to really get to know one another in a more profound way. If the NBCC can lead to regional connections that tear down old walls that may be crumbling already then a moment in Atlanta will certainly become a powerful movement.