Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Mount Vernon Statement: Roadmap to (Another) Civil War

Last week a number of prominent religious and political conservatives (including Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission) released a new statement of "Conservative Beliefs, Values and Principles." The document, entitled The Mount Vernon Statement, claims as its purpose the defense of "the high ground of America’s founding principles."

A cursory reading of the document, however, with a little knowledge of America's antebellum history, reveals the document for what it is: a modern restatement of the same political and religious arguments used by antebellum southern states in defending the rights of slaveholders to own slaves. Furthermore, the Mount Vernon pronouncement is modeled after a 1960 white conservative political call to arms - the Sharon Statement - against the liberalism of the Civil Rights movement. (The Mount Vernon Statement web site initially included a link to the Sharon Statement noting the inspiration derived from the 1960 document, but subsequently removed it.)

In short, the religious and politically conservative elites who signed the document have reclaimed the southern ideological "high ground" of states rights and freedom defined as personal liberties for select individuals (but mandated inequities in American society at large).

To this southern antebellum framework the Mount Vernon Statement adds civil privileges for Christians (does anyone doubt the reference to "faith" refers to Christians specifically?) and bows before the altar of unfettered free markets that have turned 21st-century America into the equivalent of a Third World (undeveloped) nation in regards to the astonishing inequities of our national wealth gap.

Young conservative Southern Baptists are right to criticize SBC leaders who signed this statement as persons "seduced by political idolatry." Conservative political icon Christopher Buckley is likely right that the statement more immediately originates from an innate hatred of President Obama. Other commentators are correct to point out that the Mount Vernon Statement mangles its usage of America's founding documents (not to mention the irony that the United States Constitution, which Mount Vernon signees present as of divine origin, makes no mention of God).

While likely few, if any, of the signers of the Mount Vernon Statement are racists, the statement - like the larger Tea Party movement which it parrots - is that of white conservatives devoted to antebellum southern ideology welded with modern free market extremism. The statement is not reflective of the ethnically diverse, pluralistic nation that America is, nor is it reflective of the Christ to whom some of the signees claim allegiance. Rather than a roadmap to the future, it is a desperate attempt to mandate an inequitable society ruled by an ideology that has more in common with theocracies and oligarchies than western democracy. Our colonial Baptist forefathers lived under such tyrannies, and their ongoing witness and ageless voices serve as a warning to all Americans to remain faithful to our nation's founding principles of democracy, freedom, and equality for all.

Monday, February 22, 2010

"Progressivism" is a "Disease in the Republic"?

Glenn Beck, he of Tea Party fame, recently pronounced that the "progressive movement" is a "disease in the Republic" and a "cancer." He also said: "All right, now, if all of this sounds like a government out of control, go back to the progressive movement. It is not what our founders of this country intended."

One thing Tea Partiers consistently ignore is history. Despite their moniker, the movement bears no resemblance to the revolutionary-era Boston Tea Party. And despite Beck's rantings, progressivism has always been at the core of the American nation.

Baptists in the colonial era were the progressives of the day (alongside smaller groups like Quakers), fighting for freedom of conscience, religious liberty, pluralism, and separation of church and state. The Baptist vision - for some 150 years considered heretical and subversive by conservative, theocratic colonial church states - finally won out in the founding of the new American nation, a nation founded upon the liberal, progressive principles of freedom, justice, secular government, human equality, and human rights.

In the decades and centuries following, it fell upon successive generations to further advance the nation's expressed commitment to freedom and human rights. The story of America from the late 18th century to the present is a narrative of a nation fleshing out the substance of these founding principles, ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution in terms of America as a people who are committed to human equality, "justice," "domestic tranquility", "common defence," "the general welfare" of all citizens, "the blessings of liberty," and First Amendment rights of separation of church and state and freedom of expression. It is a story yet unfinished, and pockmarked with plenty of warts. But it is the story of the unfolding of the ideals voiced by our nation's founding fathers.

Yet demagogues like Glenn Beck have little use for truth or for America's liberal, progressive founding principles. Rather, their concern is their own personal welfare at the expense of those with whom they disagree. Their rhetorical demands are for a country in which there is essentially no federal government, taxes are virtually non-existent, life and death and wealth and poverty are willed by the profit-driven dictates of large corporations, freedom of conscience is restricted (if not illegal), diversity does not exist, the full rights of citizenship are limited to ideologically-pure persons (and maybe even ethnically pure), and freedom exists only within the parameters of approved group-think.

In short, the world of Glenn Beck and his loyalists is a world opposed to historical American principles and ideals. And while America's liberal, progressive foundations allow Beck the freedom to express his subversive views, if Beck and his followers were to succeed in abolishing America's historical identity, their ideological triumph would seal the destruction of the nation they love to hate.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


My newest book, entitled A Capsule History of Baptists, published by the Baptist History and Heritage Society, is scheduled for release March 1. Early reviews are available here. Pricing is 20% off for pre-orders placed prior to March 1.

As a teaser, here are the opening paragraphs of the volume:

"Prison bars and hostile courts on two continents during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries fueled a freedom movement unlike any the world had never known: the liberation of human conscience and the separation of church and state. Political and religious authorities in Britain tried mightily to repress the little religious sect that refused to be silenced.

Theocrats in the colonies sought to eradicate the troublesome dissenters from the
New World. The religious and political establishment, in short, denied earthly citizenship and shut the gates of heaven in order to silence dissident cries for freedom. And yet the small, persecuted sect that came to be known as Baptists persevered.

Against all odds, the freedom fighters slowly, relentlessly gnawed the cords that had bound human conscience for over twelve hundred years. They endured death, beatings, whippings, and stonings. Wafting from dank jails, back alleys, and dark forests, the Baptist cry of freedom perplexed the powerful and inspired other dissenters.

From their beginnings, Baptists were the subject of an eradication campaign directed by the most powerful figures in
Europe. Thomas Helwys (c. 1575-1616), a wealthy and respected layman who cast his lot with the first Baptist congregation in 1609 in Amsterdam, was jailed in 1612 in Newgate, the most loathsome and feared prison in England. Within four years of his incarceration, at about the age of forty, Helwys became the first Baptist martyr. The story of his faith and death defined the narrative of the people called Baptists until the late eighteenth century, while his personal convictions grounded the Baptist nexus and ethos for over four centuries."

Did I mention that the price of the book is 20% off until March 1? :-)