Opinion

The Southern Baptist distraction

Max Borders Editor, The Freeman

The theocrats are angry. No, I’m not talking about Qaddafi or Mubarak. I’m talking about the Southern Baptists.

You see, they’re feeling left out. And when people feel left out, they start making noise. Never mind the corruption of health care, corporate welfare, make-work blunders and the mounting national debt. There’s beer to be banned on Sundays; Ten Commandment statues to be erected in town squares everywhere.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, writes:

Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, social conservatives were the foot soldiers for Republican victories — only to see their issues bargained away or shoved to the bottom of the GOP agenda, beneath issues of fiscal and foreign policy.

Indeed, the Southern Baptists would just have us forget about the recent progress of the fusionist movement, a movement composed of Tea Partiers, libertarians, conservatives, Republicans and — especially — sensible, fed-up Democrats. Why?

The Southern Baptists have devoted their lives to creating a theocracy. And — by God — they’re not going to let political progress get in the way. So here they go: tearing down the Big Tent in the vain hope of putting up a revival tent in its place.

Here’s Land, again, writing in the Wall Street Journal:

Reacting to Gov. Daniels, former Arkansas governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee recently said: “For those of us who have labored long and hard in the fight to educate the Democrats, voters, the media and even some Republicans on the importance of strong families, traditional marriage and life to our society, this is absolutely heartbreaking.”

Why is it “heartbreaking”? Why can’t religious conservatives continue to “educate the Democrats, voters, the media and even some Republicans on the importance of strong families, traditional marriage and life to our society”? Because they want more than to educate. They want to control. Mitch Daniels’s “truce” suggestions means more delays in turning Washington into the New Jerusalem.

So they’re not going to put down their pitch forks, at least for a while:

There is a deep longing in large segments of the American populace for a restoration of a morality that emphasizes personal obligations and responsibilities over rights and privileges. Such a society will have a restored moral symmetry in which exemplary personal and professional behavior is rewarded and less exemplary behavior is not.

Who can disagree with such a vacuous passage?

The problem is, what Land means is that he’s willing to legislate his brand of morality, and “reward” his idea of exemplary behavior with your tax dollars. Well, that just doesn’t work. Moral goodness, however you define it, is not something that can be enforced at the point of a gun, much less subsidized through the tax code. Morality arises from deep within the human breast. And it must arise naturally, as a positive force, from the bonds of community. So moral suasion has nothing to do with Mitch Daniels. And picking on him is counterproductive — that is, unless you’re a Huckabee supporter.

It may have been bad strategy for Daniels to make the “truce” statement publicly. That remains to be seen. But Daniels is dead right. He saw that the fusionist movement — not the 1980s “moral majority” — handed Republicans their gains in 2010. What binds that movement is not some “longing” for a time when women wore heels in the kitchen and sins were kept in the closet. What binds the movement is a deep desire to restore the institutions of the Republic. It’s a nostalgia for a Constitution that did what it was designed to do.

Restoring the Republic is about limiting the powers of government. As Daniels himself said recently:

Purity in martyrdom is for suicide bombers. King Pyrrhus is remembered, but his nation disappeared. Winston Churchill set aside his lifetime loathing of Communism in order to fight World War II. Challenged as a hypocrite, he said that when the safety of Britain was at stake, his “conscience became a good girl.” We are at such a moment. I for one have no interest in standing in the wreckage of our Republic saying “I told you so” or “You should’ve done it my way.”

To distort a phrase from Ben Franklin, we must stay together, or we will fall separately.

Now, I would ask Richard Land a touchy question: Is this about money? Because maybe the Southern Baptists are just like other special interest groups. As the nation is increasingly focused on economic problems, members of the fusionist movement — including many God-fearing Christians — are putting more time and resources into economics-focused activism. That may mean less for the collection plate from which “God’s Lobbyist” feeds. I don’t know.

But to ask the money question is not to hurl accusations of venality at the Southern Baptists. Every group — from the greens to the unions — has to protect their gravy trains or go away. It’s just reality. When you’re an interest group, you’re always serving two masters: your ideology and your bank account. The Southern Baptists are no different. Because in politics and life, Mammon can at least be a wise counselor.

The Founders designed the Republic to be a space for all sorts of conceptions of the good. In essence, they created a moral marketplace in which you could choose your religious and ethical community while enjoying the blessings of liberty. That was the vision. For all the talk of Judeo-Christian foundations, the Founding was primarily secular. And that’s why, despite the protestations of the Southern Baptists, I renew my call for patriots to walk hand in hand to the polls in 2012, despite our differences.

So while many Americans may not want a truce on social issues, most have sense enough to realize that the restoration of “rights and privileges” of the sort enshrined by Adams, Madison and Jefferson are fundamental to the American project — especially one that includes “personal obligations and responsibilities.” Most realize that if the fusionist movement is torn apart, the progressives will divide and conquer. When that happens, we’re all going to hell

Max Borders is a writer living in Austin. He blogs at Ideas Matter.