Reprinted with permission from Roll Call
Most religious traditions follow a set of commandments, perhaps written down in a holy book. They differ in the particulars, but the sentiment can be boiled down to what's called the "Golden Rule" — treat others as one would want to be treated.
You don't need to subscribe to any faith; just strive to live with honor in a civilized society. But apparently, even that's too much for some folks who have other priorities.
This week, the welcome mat was out at the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting. "Join us at the Nashville Music City Center for four full days of equipping, and inspiration," the invitation read. But that cheery message, and the words of Ronnie Floyd, president of the SBC Executive Committee, that it's "a time for Southern Baptists to come together and celebrate how God is moving in and through our convention and churches," belied internal turmoil.
The SBC surprised some Tuesday when it elected Ed Litton as its president. In a close vote, Litton, who is seen as someone more interested in reconciliation than retribution, defeated Mike Stone, the candidate of those wanting to move the organization even further to the right. But in some ways, Litton's selection is only buying time for a denomination that is still divided over issues of racism and sexism.
Several of the SBC's signature leaders are walking to the exit doors, and they are not going quietly.
In a leaked letter, Russell Moore, who left his position as head of the denomination's public policy arm, accused leaders of disparaging and bullying victims of sexual abuse and failing to properly investigate their claims. Moore, who is white, had also described racist behavior he witnessed within the convention, followed by, he says, threats.
Beth Moore, the popular Bible study teacher and author (no relation to Russell), had long been at odds with many in the SBC over her criticism of Donald Trump's comments about women. The organization's handling of abuse accusations and its pattern of not listening to the women and girls who made them led her to declare this year that she was "no longer a Southern Baptist."
Two Black pastors ended their church's affiliation with the convention late last year after the leaders of six SBC seminaries released a statement that said"affirmation of Critical Race Theory, Intersectionality and any version of Critical Theory is incompatible with the Baptist Faith & Message."
One of the two pastors, Charlie Edward Dates, the senior pastor at Chicago's Progressive Baptist Church, wrote in an op-ed for Religion News Service: "When did the theological architects of American slavery develop the moral character to tell the church how it should discuss and discern racism? … How did they, who in 2020 still don't have a single Black denominational entity head, reject once and for all a theory that helps to frame the real race problems we face?"
Though it is the nation's largest Protestant denomination, the SBC has been losing members, so perhaps the election of Litton was an attempt to slow the debate and the exodus. If only many of its members had thought long and hard before throwing their lot in with Trump, who demands absolute devotion. Isn't there something in the Ten Commandments about that?
A Catholic Chasm
My own Catholic faith also is facing a headline-making reckoning.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in its virtual meeting this week, had scheduled a vote on whether to permit its Committee on Doctrine to draft a document "to help Catholics understand the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist as the center of their Christian lives." Those spiritual words, from Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez, the USCCB president, couch the intentions of a leading figure among the conservative cohort that would deny the second Catholic president, Joe Biden, the sacrament of the Eucharist because of his support for abortion rights.
The right to an abortion may be legal in the U.S., for now, but it is also a sin for Catholics.
That, of course, is true for Pope Francis. But he has warned conservative American bishops to avoid prioritizing an issue that has become a political litmus test. For Francis, it's complicated, though many U.S. bishops disagree. So much for all Catholics being controlled by this pope, with whom conservative Catholics have been feuding since he arrived at the Vatican.
A recent petition, organized by Faithful America and signed by 21,000 people, accused the bishops of weaponizing the Eucharist, and in a letter the group thanked the more than 60 bishops who opposed the USCCB vote. Cardinal Wilton Gregory, who is archbishop of Washington, was one of them. So the president is in no danger of being turned away at a D.C. altar.
It's not a new debate, though John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic president, had to prove with words and actions that he would not let faith dictate his politics. Another famous Catholic politician, Mario Cuomo, had much to say on the subject, as he did on most everything.
In 1984, at the University of Notre Dame, no less, Cuomo, who died in 2015, said: "Better than any law or rule or threat of punishment would be the moving strength of our own good example, demonstrating our lack of hypocrisy, proving the beauty and worth of our instruction. We must work to find ways to avoid abortions without otherwise violating our faith. We should provide funds and opportunity for young women to bring their child to term, knowing both of them will be taken care of if that is necessary; we should teach our young men better than we do now their responsibilities in creating and caring for human life."
That would satisfy few today. As places of worship have reopened post-pandemic, the political divide in America has followed worshippers through the doors.
Would now be the time to act on other items on Pope Francis' agenda — climate change, migrants, poverty, racial justice and how to ease the grief of those who lost someone or something in this harrowing year?
What about the voting restrictions proposed in Texas that take special aim at Black churchgoers, with limits on Sunday voting, and seniors, who depend on these organized voting drives? And this is in a state that plunged its residents into endless crises during a freeze.
What about disabled voters, who worry these laws being enacted across the country limit access, preventing them from exercising their rights as Americans?
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose faith informed and inspired civil rights activism, once chided fellow ministers for failing to see the injustices in front of them. He might have a few relevant words.
As would the Rev. Dr. William Barber, who this week traveled to West Virginia to deliver a message to that state's Democratic senator, Joe Manchin — about voting rights and the minimum wage, poverty and power.
It was personal and political, and delivered with passion, as if on command.
Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.