Rick: How can you close me up? On what grounds?
Captain Renault: I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!
[a croupier hands Renault a pile of money]
Croupier: Your winnings, sir.
Captain Renault: [sotto voce] Oh, thank you very much.
Captain Renault: Everybody out at once! (Casablanca, 1942)
Just as Captain Renault, in the 1942 classic, Casablanca, was not truly shocked that gambling was going on in Rick’s (Humphrey Bogart) establishment, neither should it come as a shock to anyone that politics is going on in the Southern Baptist Convention. Such has been the case since the SBC’s founding in 1845 and such will be the case until the Convention’s demise. Such is life. As a political science major in college, former attorney, and student of politics, religion, and culture, I have an appreciation for the art of politics. At its best, it is persuading people to your cause or vision. At its worst, it is abusing process or power (or both) to accomplish through force what you cannot achieve through persuasion and compromise.
Of course, what one sees as persuasion another can see as abuse. Our perspectives are usually skewed by our own biases and prejudices. We would be less than honest if we said that we always look at the political process from a purely objective point of view. That’s true whether we are evaluating the tug-of-war between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich or debating the battle shaping up between the ruling elites and the grassroots within the nation’s largest Protestant body.
Politics can be both a noble calling and a dirty business. Politics can be about serving the needs of your constituency or feeding the needs of your own ego. Look to Ronald Reagan for an example of the first and Newt Gingrich for an example of the second.
Which brings me back to the politics that are going on in the Southern Baptist Convention. To deny the reality of politics — even of the hardball variety — would be naive at best and willfully blind at worst. Of course, those who play hardball always want the other side to “play nice.” That usually means taking off your helmet and waiting silently to be hit by the high fast ball to the chin. We have seen that strategy work magnificently far too often in the secular world of politics when one party (usually Democrats) wants the other party (usually Republicans) to be more “bi-partisan.” In our current state of politics, that’s just code for “stand down, shut up, and give in to our every demand.” And, that’s not confined to just Washington, D.C. It has become the rallying cry for the establishment within the SBC.
If I did not know any better, I would think that the powers-that-be within the Southern Baptist Convention have borrowed President Obama’s playbook (although that playbook may not lead to another win). From calling for transparency and doing the opposite to appointing unofficial committees (think Obama’s Czars) to advocating for immigration reform (read, “amnesty”), those in leadership within the SBC have used the art of politics to leverage some fairly big wins. And, why not. Those who have the gold make the rules. The ends justify the means. All’s fair in love and war. To the victor go the spoils.
While Christians can understand the political gamesmanship that takes place in the halls of government, many Christians simply cannot fathom that this same gamesmanship takes place within religious institutions. Even when compelling evidence of political maneuvering is presented, many of my fellow Southern Baptists will simply dismiss it (either because of the messenger or the message or both). I’m all for giving people the benefit of the doubt and for extending grace in less-than-clear situations, but that does not mean abandoning common sense, reason, and wisdom.
It’s far past time for grassroots Southern Baptists to use politics — the art of persuasion — to make a compelling case for a Convention based upon a bottom-up, cooperative model of missions and ministry. The establishment, to their credit, has used (and in some cases, abused) the political process to accomplish their goals and to implement their top-down, societal model of missions and ministry. What happens in New Orleans will determine the future of the Southern Baptist Convention as we know it. Don’t be shocked at the raw political power that will be exerted to push forward the establishment agenda (just as it was with the GCR, so will it be with the Name Change).
Just remember — politics isn’t always a dirty word. After all, the Conservative Resurgence was won because politics was used to persuade the grassroots that a change of direction was needed. That’s something that this generation of leaders has somehow forgotten. And, that’s why, no matter how the establishment tries to spin it, the GCR and the Name Change will never be the legitimate descendants of the CR. Stand down. I think not!