Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Huckabee Withdraws–From the Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant.

As both Bruce Prescott and Melissa Rogers have noted, the Florida Baptist Witness is reporting that former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee (R-AR), an ordained Southern Baptist minister and a candidate for the Republican nomination for U.S. president in ’08, has noisily withdrawn his participation in the upcoming Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant. This event, largely organized by former U.S. Pres. Jimmy Carter (D), arguably the most famous Baptist layperson in the U.S., is to bring long-divided groups of Baptists together in common work for the Rule of God. Huckabee had been scheduled to be one of the speakers. I am not a fan of Huckabee’s politics and oppose his presidential ambitions, but I had thought that he was personally a good guy and I was pointing to his participation in this event as a good sign.

 Now, Huckabee has withdrawn and his reasons are quite disturbing.  1) He claims to have withdrawn because Jimmy Carter, in an interview, claimed that George W. Bush’s foreign policy was the worst of any president in U.S. history, including Nixon’s.  Why is this a reason for withdrawing from an event that isn’t about politics, much less about Bush? Carter has been known for his blunt speech for decades, including about members of his own party (e.g., Ted Kennedy, the late Tip O’Neill).  If Huckabee only wants to meet with Baptists who admire the current president, then he’s going to have a hard time meeting anyone outside the Southern Baptist Convention. One would be hard pressed, for example, to find many African-American Baptists who are big Bush fans. Does Huckabee never want to meet with these sisters and brothers?  If loyalty to a political party is a “test of Christian fellowship,” then the only word to describe the phenomenon is “idolatry.” I have worshipped in congregations that had elected officials from across the political spectrum (not to mention the rest of us who aren’t in elected office). Has Huckabee never done this?  Is this some new version of the twisted “homogeneity” principle used by some church growth theorists–in direct contradiction to the New Testament’s message of reconciliation between various classes, races, language groups, both genders, etc.??

2) Huckabee’s other reason for withdrawing from the Covenant event is even more disturbing. He claims that he cannot appear on the same program as Marian Wright Edelman, founder and head of the Childrens’ Defense Fund, the foremost, independent, grassroots advocacy agency for the wellbeing of children.  Huckabee claims that Edelman’s presence as a speaker is “evidence of the extreme liberalism” of the event. Huh?  This is confusing on several levels.

A. As Bruce Prescott asks, since when is trying to seek justice and wellbeing of children either “liberal” or “conservative?” Does this mean that Huckabee’s much vaunted pro-life credentials stop when children are born? For crying out loud, even G.W. Bush adopted (I’ll not say “stole”) the CDF’s “Leave No Child Behind” slogan when he created his “No Child Left Behind” education law (which leaves MANY children behind, but that’s a different issue).  Isn’t it a BASIC principle of biblical faith, which surely any ordained minister must know, that children (along with widows and other vulnerable people) are a test of a just and caring community?  Did Huckabee somehow miss all that the Bible says about protecting children?  Why would he put down Edelman’s work–work which has led to 3 nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize??

B.  Suppose, for a second, that Edelman is a “liberal” in either politics (which would not be surprising since she was a Civil Rights activist in college before becoming one of the first African-American women to graduate from Yale Law School) or theology. (How would he know anything about her theology? She hasn’t written on it and I doubt Huckabee shows up at Edelman’s church much.)  Isn’t the very purpose of this meeting for Baptists to cross dividing boundaries of race, region, history, culture, worship-style, and YES, divisions of political and theological conviction in order to find common ground as sisters and brothers in the Lord? Did Huckabee imagine that only “conservatives” (however he defines the term) would be at a meeting designed to get past such divisions??

Bruce Prescott speculates that Huckabee’s real reason for withdrawing as a speaker and participant is because the leadership of the SBC (which opposes the meeting) has pressured him to do so.  That may be it. Or it may be that some campaign guru has told him that he cannot afford to be seen with the likes of Carter and Edelman if he wants any shot at the G.O.P. nomination. Both are pretty sorry excuses, in my view.

Will other Republican politicians who had planned to come to the Covenant, such as Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC), and Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA), now back out, too? Will the conservative SBC Bloggers who met with Carter and planned to come, now retreat?  Will either denominational or national politics trump the “ties that bind” sisters and brothers in Christ?  It’s happened before, but I know it breaks God’s heart every time.

My respect for Mike Huckabee as a person of faith and integrity (whatever our differences in theology or politics), just plummeted to the basement.

May 22, 2007 - Posted by | Baptists, scandal, sin


  1. This is distressing news, regardless of his motivations (which, of course, we can only guess at).

    Has Huckabee’s withdrawal left the meeting without conservative representation, or are there others on the program that you and I would consider honest-to-gosh conservatives?

    Comment by D. P. | May 22, 2007

  2. Darrell, as I said Republican Senators Grassley (IA) and Graham (SC), both very conservative, are, as of now, still on the program. Joel Gregory, professor of preaching at Truett, is certainly a conservative evangelical, and he’s on the program. Nor is the entire program set yet, nor all the invitations sent. I have in mind some conservatives from several Baptist groups to suggest (as well as some voices that those people will find very challenging).

    We can only guess if Huckabee has hidden motives, but his stated ones are certainly distressing.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | May 22, 2007

  3. I hope the planners of this event take pains to emphasize the “bipartisan” (for lack of a better word) nature of it. The principal leaders behind this gathering are more clearly associated with the liberal or progressive wings of the Baptist family, and I’m sure some who would otherwise be sympathetic to its goals might be tempted to dismiss it as some kind of political soapbox for the left. (I say this as an adjunct faculty member at Mercer University and a member of the same church as Bill Underwood!)

    As you say, this isn’t about politics and it isn’t about “liberal” or “conservative.” Let’s pray that Baptist folks from across the spectrum can find a way to rally around the themes of justice and mercy even if they disagree about what policies would best promote them.

    Comment by D. P. | May 22, 2007

  4. Thanks for bringing this to my attention, Michael. Sad.

    You know, this sort of reaching across our political divides is one of those items that came up pretty high on our own church self-evaluation process. I suppose we might expect some of this in our own future…

    Comment by Dan Trabue | May 22, 2007

  5. Dan,
    I think our congregation should send at least 2 official representatives to this meeting 30Jan-01Feb.

    Darrell, Covenant planners have worked harder to seek out conservatives than they have to invite folks from the Alliance of Baptists or the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists or other “liberals.” Despite attacks from the SBC officials, Carter and other Covenant event planners deliberately reached out to some younger SBC leaders like Wade Burleson, and to high-level Republicans like Huckabee. Of course, by backing out, Huckabee makes the meeting less inclusive than it otherwise would be. But, if anything, I think this event and its “centrist, moderate” planners have bent over backwards to get conservatives and haven’t worked hard at all to get Baptists from other perspectives. I have urged that they change that.
    And it is not only Alliance of Baptists types that have so far been not received invitations. Neither have many other small Baptist groups such as the Seventh Day Baptists, the Free Will Baptists, the Baptist General Conference, nor the North American Baptist Conference (the old ethnic-Swedish and ethnic-German Baptists). So, I want this meeting to be even broader and more inclusive than it is trying to be so far.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | May 22, 2007

  6. Thanks for all the background, Michael. I must admit, I knew very little about this event except for the big names involved. As I readily admit, I’m a Baptist but not a very good one 🙂

    Comment by D. P. | May 23, 2007

  7. Speaking of groups that have not yet been invited, do you know if the GARB or the CBA (both breakaway groups from the ABC, in the 1920s and 40s, respectively) have been invited to participate. The SBC may not be interested, but they’re by no means the only conservative Baptist denomination out there. I don’t know what the GARB would think about this conference, but there is a progressive evangelical wing in the CBA that would probably be very interested.

    Comment by haitianministries | May 23, 2007

  8. Hi Michael. i probably shouldn’t comment on this blog, as I’m not a US citizen. But I’m interested in one of the issues you raise, and it’s an issue I can’t figure. On the one hand I entirely agree with you that the unity of the church transcends political agendas (precisely because it is a unity that is established not by common interest or agenda etc., but by the Spirit). A “left-wing” or a “right-wing” church would necessarily deny its own ontological ground in the Eucharist, would become one more (perhaps interesting) human project, and would cease to be itself. On the other hand, the Christian gospel can’t be a witness to justice and mercy if these are conceived in the abstract. Justice and Mercy are, for the Christian, very concrete (if also eschatological) categories. And in this sense it seems possible to say that the church might find herself in situations where, by being the church, she necessarily places herself in opposition to other quite concrete political agendas. (I should admit that part of the reason I say this is because I’ve just watched Ken Loach’s film, ‘The Wind that Shakes the Barley’, which is the kind of film that makes it very difficult to say that the church should transcend political difference). Could we say that sometimes there may be circumstances – tragic circumstances – where the church’s witness to the eschatological vision of justice and peace requires her to engage in political actions that are very concrete and certainly very questionable in so far as all human actions are questionable, and where to not commit herself in this concrete way is already a commitment to a political agenda. Perhaps the only thing to do in these tragic situations is to act, and yet to do so while internalising the tension (like the “whiskey priest” in Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory who celebrates the Eucharist knowing that in so doing he is damning himself). So, I guess my question is whether such tragic situations can arise?
    ps. I too am pleased that my government didn’t support your government’s war. But we still have dirty hands – our SAS troops were just awarded some prize for their courage and immense bravery by Mr. Bush, in fighting for the cause in Afghanistan. Of course, because they are SAS troops, no one (except the PM and a few other privileged people) know what exactly they are doing. We’re killing people for democracy too, we just don’t know (or want to know) that we’re doing it.

    Comment by Andre Muller | May 24, 2007

  9. No nation, Andre, ever has perfectly clean hands. I am a Christian pacifist, but the most I expect nation-states to adhere to is some strict version of Just War Theory. I think a much better case can be made for Afghanistan meeting JWT norms (although secrecy may prove that to be illusory) than Iraq.

    I have not said that Christianity has no political implications. See https://levellers.wordpress.com/2006/08/08/should-christians-join-political-parties/

    for some of my thinking in that regard. But Christians cannot be “true blue” to any political party since no human political ideology or agenda is identical to the Rule of God. We see through a glass darkly. If we join particular political parties (if I was a New Zealander, a Kiwi, I’d probably be a Green; if I can get enough structural reforms in our system to give 3rd parties a real chance to make a difference, I might join the U.S. Green Party), we do so knowing they are flawed: they just represent our best estimate of a vision of relatively more justice and peace than the other available options. For someone to refuse to meet with other Christians because differences about which party is closer is idolatry.

    There are, of course, exceptions. As Barth and Bonhoeffer realized, one cannot have anything to do with “Christian” Nazis. During the apartheid years in South Africa, a white Christian like Beyers’ Naude realized that to be true to the gospel, he had to break with any party, and any denomination, that justified apartheid.

    But these exceptions are, I believe, rarities and, ruling some parties out hardly says that the party one chooses is God’s party. That way lies nationalistic idolatry again.

    In the U.S. system, both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party have been, for most of their histories, broad coalitions of competing ideologies. Both are deeply flawed, but neither is demonic, in my view–though the ideological narrowing in the Republicans in recent decades means that they are closer to demonic than previously.

    I hope that clarifies things. I would love to visit New Zealand one day. A couple in my congregation went for a visit just before having their first child (deliberate timing) and the pics and stories they brought back are amazing.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | May 24, 2007

  10. Thanks Michael. That does clarify things, and I think I very much agree with what you are saying. My own position is that the church cannot side with a particular political party, because her own life is already a mode of political life, but one that is radically eschatological in that it witneses to the coming kingdom (and is therefore not a third or a fourth political option alongside of say, being the Labour Party or the Greens). And I think that leads me to basically the same position as you are stating.
    But I still find myself wrestling with something here, something about tragedy and the political (and here I’m haunted not just by say, von Stauffenberg and the others who took part in the July Plot, or by Loach’s film, but also by the descriptions of life offered by Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy). Anyway, this isn’t the place to continue such torturous musings. Thanks again for your helpful comments.
    ps. Yes, you should visit NZ. I want to visit Kentucky someday, so perhaps we could do a swap!

    Comment by Andre Muller | May 24, 2007

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