In the week since my Washington Post piece on Baptists and Ben Carson, some critics have accused the Southern Baptist Convention of a new kind of fundamentalism. Baptists unduly rescinded the offer to Carson to speak at the Pastors’ Conference because of (what the critics see as) irrelevant theological differences between evangelicals and Seventh-Day Adventists (Carson’s denomination). Megachurch pastor Perry Noble called those who asked the SBC to retract the invitation “theological police” who “love theology more than Jesus.”
The controversy raises again the value of a paleo evangelical approach to politics. What the critics don’t appreciate is how badly evangelical churches need to keep their distance from contemporary party politics, and from endorsing specific candidates. With Southern Baptists still emerging from the political excesses of the Moral Majority era, non-evangelicals see conservative Christians in America primarily as pious Republicans. Evangelicals will undoubtedly maintain conservative political positions on topics such as the value of life, the meaning of marriage, and the primacy of religious liberty, but they need to be wary of cozying up too much with political candidates. They especially need to drop any notion that Kingdom work will be primarily accomplished through government and politicians. This is both an issue of mission focus, and gospel clarity.
Regarding Carson, I want to make a clear distinction that has been muddled by the controversy over his speaking invitation. Carson is a perfectly legitimate candidate with an enormously appealing life story, and many evangelicals may well decide to support him in the presidential primaries. Just as I argued with regard to Mitt Romney, evangelicals often will find themselves supporting candidates with non-evangelical personal beliefs, especially if that person (like Carson) takes conservative positions on life, marriage, and liberty.
The problem that I and many other Baptists had with Carson speaking at the Pastors’ Conference is not primarily that he is an Adventist. My problem is that evangelicals need to stop platforming political candidates at denominational functions. This goes not only for Carson, but even for someone like former Baptist pastor Mike Huckabee.By highlighting the political insiders of the week at Kingdom-oriented events, we keep giving the watching world the impression that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is inextricably connected to voting Republican. And that our talk about Jesus, grace, and forgiveness is really just pious window-dressing for a core political agenda. Annual denominational meetings for pastors should attend to issues such as the best preaching practices, evangelism, missions, reaching and discipling young people, praying for revival, etc. – isn’t that enough to do without giving keynote space to random presidential candidates?
Paleo evangelicals will want to run Ben Carson’s candidacy through the same tests that you would use for any candidate: beyond life, religious liberty, and marriage, we might ask, does this person have sufficient experience and understanding for the challenges of the presidency? (Carson’s chief weakness, I would think, is his lack of relevant experience.) Does this person seem likely to pursue more interminable war and nation-building interventions across the world? Does he or she have a thoughtful, realistic approach to immigration policy that balances welcoming the stranger with upholding the law?
If Carson passes these tests better than other primary candidates, then by all means, evangelicals can and should support him. (I doubt that he will, on balance, be the best choice for paleo evangelicals.) The point about the Carson controversy is not what individual evangelicals choose to do in the voting booth. It is that events like the Southern Baptist Pastors’ Conference need to be campaign-free zones. We’ve got more important Kingdom business that urgently needs attention.
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