Columns » Autumn Tolbert




The annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention this week has me thinking about two things that just can't quit each other: politics and religion. Peas and carrots to some. Oil and water to others. Either way, to write on politics in the South is to write on religion in the South. And there is no bigger influence on politics down here than the Southern Baptists. As I write this, they are preparing to gather in Dallas to pray, elect a new president, and, according to a statement by former SBC President Jack Graham, "speak to the spiritual and cultural issues of our times." If you have any question as to how that will shake out, just note that Vice President Mike Pence has been announced as a featured speaker and the SBC website features both an article celebrating the Supreme Court Masterpiece Cakeshop decision and another advising churches on how to upgrade their fancy wireless sound systems. To the SBC's credit, no mention is made of asking a state legislator for money.

It's not my intention to continually write about religion, and I'm certainly no theologian, but attending a conservative evangelical church three times a week for the first 18 years of my life arguably makes me an expert on Arkansas religion. At least one breed of it.

It's a breed of Christianity taught mostly by men who may have a certificate of ministry, but little to no higher education in history, philosophy or science to give any context to their teachings or sermons. It's like reading the Bible with blinders on. Unfortunately those men and their cronies keep getting elected. It is ruining both religion and politics.

Back to the Southern Baptists. It came as a pleasant surprise that the organization recently took a strong stance in favor of removing Confederate memorials from Memphis parks. It remains to be seen if the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention will take a strong stance against the Trump administration's horrific practice of separating young children from their parents as they arrive here seeking asylum. This isn't a completely new policy, but it has been expanded under Trump. Someone in the SBC leadership did sign a letter asking Trump to reconsider this practice; however, there's been little talk of this practice by the present and former leadership of the SBC. The current president, Pastor Steve Gaines from the Bellevue Baptist megachurch in Memphis, appears to be silent on the issue, although in between spreading the "good news," he does comment on other worldly things. I don't know what past president and Northwest Arkansas's own Pastor Ronnie Floyd has to say, as I'm still blocked from viewing his Twitter account.

Surely these men have seen the photos and heard the stories of the children being ripped from their parents' arms? Surely they've heard the stories of families being ripped apart by inhuman immigration policies? In Floyd's own backyard, the Washington and Benton county sheriffs participate in the ICE 287(g) program, which creates instability in the local immigrant communities and leads to the breaking up of families, of citizen children having their parents deported, and increased gang activity. After all, if a young person's parents can disappear at any time for something as benign as having no driver's license, then having an extra support system, whether it be a church or a gang, has to be appealing.

What's the holdup? Why are they silent? Well, it's right there in Matthew. Their hearts have been hardened. That's why no amount of graphic videos and photos of dead children washed up on beaches and no amount of photos and accounts of children being separated from their parents without given the chance to say goodbye to one another will change things for many evangelicals. Why is this? Is it because maybe the newfangled way to say "their hearts have been hardened" is to say "they are racist"? Whether overt or systemic, it's clear that the origin and skin color of the asylum seekers play a role in the indifference.

That's why, instead of having this group of faith leaders in Dallas speak up for the least of us and for all children and families by asking Pence the hard questions and publicly admonishing the Trump administration for its cruel, anti-family policies, I'm afraid we will see two days of self-congratulation from those who celebrate discrimination at bakeries. Instead of speaking out to help families from being ripped apart at the border, they'll keep repeating that all the world needs is Jesus while at the same time ignoring their old catch phrase, "What would Jesus do?"

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