Civil rights struggle far from over; progressive Baptists called to carry the torch

The struggle for civil rights is not over, and progressive Baptists must carry the cause, speakers exhorted participants at the annual Associated Baptist Press dinner June 19 in Memphis, Tenn.

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MEMPHIS, Tenn.—The struggle for civil rights is not over, and so-called moderate Baptists must carry the cause, speakers exhorted participants at the annual Associated Baptist Press dinner June 19 in Memphis, Tenn.

On various levels and in numerous locations, the cause of Christ demands that people of faith and goodwill stand up and speak out for the poor, the disenfranchised and the weak, speakers said during the ABP event, held each year during the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship general assembly.

“We all know race plays out in (political) campaigns, and we know this is going to be a really important one for America,” Christine Wicker said of the 2008 presidential election, referencing the contest between the first person of color likely to be nominated by a major party, Barack Obama, and John McCain.

Wicker, a former Dallas Morning News religion reporter, is the author of a new book, The Fall of the Evangelical Nation: The Surprising Crisis Inside the Church.

Fundamentalists' failure

Wicker’s topic was “Race in the 2008 Elections,” but she set the context of her remarks by referencing her new book explaining how progressive Christians—the profile of Baptists who relate to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship—face a vital opportunity to provide moral leadership.

For years, Wicker was “wowed by megachurches,” Wicker acknowledged, explaining congregations that regularly draw more than 2,000 worshippers not only are huge, but they’re typically well-run and efficient, and their ministries help huge numbers of people.

As she set out to write a book on the gigantic congregations, several pastors of those churches ironically complained to her about their ineffectiveness, she said. One pastor told her, “We can’t save anybody.”

Another suggested, “Stop looking at the front door and look at the back door,” admitting the megachurches’ huge numbers of converts are offset by the people who leave those churches every year.

Ultimately, Wicker realized she was on the wrong track when the Southern Baptist Convention’s campaign to baptize 1 million people in 2005 failed colossally.

“They not only didn’t baptize 1 million people, but they baptized less that year than the year before,” she recalled.

Wicker pored over statistics from the SBC, the Church of God and other conservative evangelical groups. She found denominations in decline.

For example, she cited Tom Ascol, a Florida pastor and Calvinist leader who has been challenging Southern Baptists to cleanse their church roles and only count “regenerate” church members: “They (Southern Baptists) say they have 16 million members, but the FBI couldn’t find 8 million of them.”

“The more I tracked, the more I saw (evidence of evangelicals’ dominance) wasn’t there. It was a façade,” she said. “I realized this isn’t bad news; this is the best news of my lifetime. The jig is up.”

For years, “fundamentalists were hiding behind the Bible, authority and marketing strategy,” trumpeting their dominance and labeling other Christian groups as losers and just plain wrong, she noted. They were so successful in their proclamations that others believed them, even when their statistics were wrong.

Opportunity for progressive Christians

Turning to the 2008 presidential race and other political campaigns, Wicker observed that progressive Christians have an unprecedented opportunity to articulate their understanding of the gospel.

Because of the presidential showdown between Obama and McCain highlights race, it’s not a new issue in American politics, she said.

“Richard Nixon played the race card with his ‘Southern Strategy’ in 1968,” she remembered, noting race has been used to divide American voters ever since. Sometimes, the appeal is subtler, camouflaged in issues such as crime and law-and-order, but it’s still present, she insisted.

“I don’t know if we should vote for Obama,” Wicker said of the current contest. “What I do know is you have been on the front lines,” she said, noting moderate or progressive Christians have rolled up their sleeves and served the poor and disenfranchised and suffering people of America, and those Christians have more influence than they realize, in part because fundamentalists have less influence than they claim.

“You have been helping people,” she said. “People are going to call on you.”

Wicker called on progressive Christians to be expansive and inclusive in their service, urging them not only to minister to like-minded Americans, but to reach out to those for whom race remains a bitter, divisive issue in U.S. politics.

“You can do it,” she affirmed. “The world is watching.”

Free press and Civil Rights

In other speeches, Associated Baptist Press editors emphasized the high calling of journalists—particularly Christians practicing their faith—to combat racism.

Washington, D.C.-based News Editor Robert Marus—a native of Little Rock, Ark., who completed his undergraduate degree at Rhodes College in Memphis—noted the unique context of the region. Little Rock made global headlines a little more than 50 years ago when black students integrated Central High School, and Memphis became a focal point for race in America 40 years ago when Martin Luther King was assassinated there.

“Journalists were the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement,” said Marus. “They stood at the apex of what our profession does best, … comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.”

The articles and photos journalists produced about the Civil Rights Movement—particularly from Little Rock and Memphis, but also from other communities, like Selma, Birmingham and Washington—turned the tide of public opinion toward integration, he reported.

“They showed Americans what they were doing to their own people,” he explained. “Americans didn’t like what they saw.”

Tragically, “one of the saddest ironies of the Civil Rights Movement” was that Christian ministers, on the whole, were nowhere near as exemplary as journalists.

“The bearers of the gospel of light” often supported segregation, Marus lamented, while practitioners of the secular craft of journalism championed the cause of African-Americans.

First American Civil Rights martyr

In fact, a former seminary student who turned to journalism became the first American martyr for civil rights 130 years before Martin Luther King died in Memphis, ABP Executive Editor Greg Warner noted.

In 1833, Christian businessmen in St. Louis approached Elijah Lovejoy about starting a newspaper to “advocate for morality” in the booming Mississippi River city, Warner reported.

So, that year, he launched The Observer. But within two years, Lovejoy championed a kind of morality his financial backers didn’t have in mind. In 1835, he started opposing slavery and gradually advocated complete abolition of slavery.

Lovejoy’s supporters and readers turned against him, calling for his lynching. He relocated his newspaper across the river, to Alton, Ill., Warner said. First, his former readers from St. Louis followed him, chopped up his printing press and threw it into the Mississippi.

Lovejoy remained undeterred, Warner reported. He bought another press and continued his assault on slavery, believing 2.5 million fellow humans should not be oppressed.

In time, his enemies destroyed more presses, and Lovejoy replaced them until, on night just before his 35th birthday, a mob in Alton shot him five times, killed him and threw his last printing press into the Mississippi.

Although the crowd took Lovejoy’s life, the newspaper editor who battled slavery because of his Christian beliefs actually won the battle, Warner said. The bullets that killed Lovejoy became the first shots of the Civil War, more than 20 years before Union and Confederate troops looked across a battlefield.

“Elijah Lovejoy was the first American martyr for freedom of the press” and freedom of all people, Warner insisted.

Civil Rights issues today

“The mid-19th century, like our day, was plagued by many Christians whose God was too small,” he said, noting “the evil today” for most Christians is apathy and complacency in the face of crying needs and oppression around the world.

“Where is our great cause? Are there no issues worth dying for?” Warner asked.

“There are civil rights issues today,” he answered, citing human trafficking and sex slavery in Thailand and racial genocide in Darfur. And issues of equity of all people should dominate the concerns of Christians who love people for whom Christ died, he added.

“We should say, ‘Let’s expand our world … by making room for other people and new ideas.’ … Let us contend with the cobwebs of complacency,” he urged, challenging Christians to see that all people have access to “safe water, clean earth and the dignity of a job.”

Associated Baptist Press is an independent news service that works with religious and secular news outlets nationwide. It is a founding partner of the New Voice Media Group, a collaboration with the Baptist Standard in Texas, the Religious Herald in Virginia and Word & Way in Missouri.

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