“My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government. President Barack Obama
From breaking his promises to televise the Health Care debate to denying more Freedom of Information Act requests than George W. Bush, President Obama certainly has a curious way of establishing “a system of transparency.” Some might say his actions — not his words — have radically redefined the word “transparency.” After all, our actions do speak louder than our words.
In June of this year, the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force (GCRTF), after a year of meetings and discussions, presented its final report. A week before this report was to be voted on by the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention, meeting in Orlando, FL on June 15-16, a press release was issued informing Southern Baptists that all of the Task Force’s “deliberations” would kept secret for 15 years. This unilateral action by the GCRTF contrasted with their own report:
Component Two: Making Our Values Transparent: We must also work toward the creation of a new and healthy culture within the Southern Baptist Convention. If we are to grow together and work together in faithfulness to the command of Christ, we must establish a culture of trust, transparency, and truth among all Southern Baptists. . . .
That the Task Force could include the above words relating to transparency in their report, while at the same time not only moving to seal the records of their proceedings, but fighting on the Convention floor to prevent ANY records from being released, can only be described as an act of hubris! Of course, there are always good reasons why transparency — as traditionally defined — cannot win the day. And the ruling elites, regardless of where they rule from, always think that they know what is best and that the public should be given as little information as possible. When that same public dares to ask a challenging question, those with polished rhetorical skills will step up to explain away any challenges.
Such was the case when a messenger at this year’s Convention introduced a motion to open the records of the proceedings of the Task Force. And that is exactly what they were — proceedings. With all due respect to Dr. Mohler and others, the Task Force was not impaneled to act like a Grand Jury, listening to secret witness testimony and deliberating whether or not to indict a criminal defendant. This was not the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, hearing top-secret testimony from undercover government operatives. The Task Force derived its authority from messengers at last year’s Convention, who overwhelmingly approved the following motion, made by Dr. Albert Mohler:
the Southern Baptist Convention, meeting June 23-24, 2009 in Louisville, Kentucky, authorize the President of the Southern Baptist Convention to appoint a Great Commission Task Force charged to bring a report and any recommendations to the Southern Baptist Convention, meeting in Orlando, Florida June 15-16, 2010, concerning how Southern Baptists can work more faithfully and effectively together in serving Christ through the Great Commission.
The Task Force, in opposing the release of even selected portions of their proceedings, used four main arguments to defend sealing the records. The first two arguments were analyzed in my earlier post, Radically Redefining Transparency in the SBC: Part 1.
In the 20 minute debate during the Convention’s Wednesday morning session (video here), both Dr. Mohler and Dr. Akin raised the issue of confidentiality as a reason why the records of the Task Force should remain sealed for 15 years. Both stated that the GCRTF promised confidentiality — for an unspecified term — to those “invited leaders of Denominational Agencies and beyond,” and that to require the Task Force to release any records would cause them to break their word, something they were quite sure that no Southern Baptist would want them to do. According to Dr. Mohler, some of the proceedings where confidentiality was at issue regarded legally privileged personnel matters.
Several problems arise with the confidentiality defense. First, assuming for the sake of argument that promises of confidentiality were made, the process should have been one of openness and transparency (as was promised by President Johnny Hunt), with very limited offers of confidentiality extended. Were these promises of confidentiality made in writing? If not, were these promises explicitly conveyed to the secret witnesses and a written record — perhaps in the minutes of that meeting — made contemporaneously to the offer of confidentiality? Dr. Mohler indicated that confidentiality was promised for “a term.” What was the promised term and when was it promised? No one has satisfactorily answered any of these questions.
Secondly, what issues could this Task Force have been dealing with that were related to “personnel” that would have risen to the level of “privileged or confidential communication?” This Task Force did not have any authority related to personnel. There could have been absolutely NO witnesses that were brought before the Task Force over which they had any supervisory or employer/employee relationship. The only possible issues dealing with personnel would have been if the names of specific individuals were discussed in connection with current employment or future employment within any of the agencies of the Convention.
Thirdly, the promise of confidentiality cannot cover the Task Force themselves. However, by arguing that promises of confidentiality were made that no one would want broken, the Task Force ingeniously blanketed their entire proceedings with secrecy, including their own internal discussions and any minutes or audio/video recordings from meetings where only the Task Force members themselves were present. With the confidentiality argument prevailing, ALL Task Force records are now sealed.
I now turn to the most egregious argument used by the GCRTF to keep their records sealed. This, more than any other argument, offers the most insight into the philosophy of leadership that currently reigns within the highest echelon of the S.B.C. today. This philosophy is expressed most clearly in the following two quotes:
The consequence of allowing unsealed records is that no future convention committee will indeed allow the recording of it deliberations and meetings because it would be compromised from the beginning. Dr. R. Albert Mohler, President, SBTS
If we vote to unseal these records, then future committees will be forced to do their work without the benefit of tape recorders and transcripts and we will lose forever the history of their important work. . . . Do not sacrifice history on the altar of politics. Dr. Greg Wills, Professor, SBTS
History has indeed been sacrificed on the altar of politics, but Dr. Wills is completely wrong when he ascribes the motivation of politics to those who would open the records of the Task Force proceedings for all Southern Baptists to see. In response to the assertion that future committees will simply not keep records if they will be forced to share those records, one must ask Dr. Mohler and Dr. Wills, “Why?” Why would future committees not allow records to be made of their deliberations? Who would force the members of these committees to purposefully fail to keep any records of their proceedings? After all, I thought the committees of the S.B.C. serve the churches of this Convention. How would sealing the records better preserve the historical records, when only a select few have access to those records until the end of 15 years. To argue that future committees will not want to operate in the open, with true transparency, is one of the most disturbing aspects of this entire debate and reveals a philosophy of leadership present at every level of government and present within the S.B.C. and some of her churches. That philosophy believes that the best form of government is that which is out of the public eye, that which is not subjected to the sunshine of a concerned constituency. Many leaders would rather conduct as much business as possible behind closed doors, out of scrutiny’s way. Those in power may say they believe in open government and transparency, but too often, their actions tear the very heart out of the concept of transparency. In the end, there really are only three kinds of leaders:
- Leaders who do not believe in transparency and openness and who lead accordingly
- Leaders who believe in transparency and openness and who lead accordingly
- Leaders who say they believe in transparency and openness — but really do not — and they lead accordingly
When it comes to leadership within our nation and within our Convention, I’ll choose door #2 every time. How about you? If we choose anything less, we will continue to see leaders who use words to convince you they believe in transparency, but who radically redefine the term by doing the opposite. And as we’ve learned with President Obama, words, even masterfully spoken or written words, are cheap.