A Week of Shame and Pride
We all have our tribe, and Baptist is mine. I was born amongst the Baptists, baptized in the Baptist way, educated with Baptists scholars, and ordained by Baptists preachers for gospel ministry in and among Baptists. I have never been sorry and often been glad.
But, sometimes I am ashamed of my Baptist tribe, and sometimes I am proud of them. And this week I have been both.
Baptist preachers were prominent among the five score religious leaders that answered an invitation to a state dinner at the White House. They were there to endorse President Trump, commend him for his courageous leadership, and pray for his success. They cited his judicial nominees and his policies against abortion and in favor of what they call religious freedom—which seems to most of us like permission to discriminate against people whose convictions or behavior they don’t like.
The group presented Trump a Bible, signed by many of them, with this inscription: ”First Lady and President, you are in our prayers always. Thank you for your courageous and bold stand for religious liberty, and for your timeless service to all Americans. We appreciate the price that you have paid to walk in the high calling. History will record the greatness that you have brought for generations.”
All of this is an embarrassment to me. These Baptist leaders are feeding a calculated frenzy that favors conservative evangelical religion over against any other form of faith: Catholic, Orthodox, Progressive, Muslim, Jewish, etc. This preferential treatment is bad for the country and bad for all faith communities. Others have been shut out and these Baptist leaders are so happy to rush in and grovel at the feet of a man most of us consider the most corrupt, inept president the country has ever had.
But hard on the heels of this disgusting display of lap-dog political loyalty come the funerals of two people also situated within the wider Baptist tradition. I refer, of course, to Aretha Franklin and John McCain.
Franklin, like me, was born into a ministerial family, was baptized into a Baptist church, and traces her talent and testimony to the religious culture of our Baptist heritage. After a launch into public performance singing gospel and spiritual music, Franklin added R&B and pop to her repertoire and blasted her way to music royalty. She became the queen of soul, and so she shall be eulogized this week in Detroit. A standing room crowd exceeding 5,000 will sit, stand, and dance through five hours of singing, testifying, and preaching as she is laid to rest at the end of a long and illustrious career.
The next day, the influential senator from Arizona will draw thousands of the politically powerful to the national cathedral in Washington DC to hear him praised by the last two American presidents, Bush and Obama. The service will highlight a four-day farewell salute that began in his home church, the North Phoenix Baptist Church.
That church and our tradition was not always his spiritual home. He began life as an Episcopalian, and we credit them for many of his qualities we admire so much: courage, faith, intelligence, humor, and conviction. They were the ones who equipped him to recite the liturgy during years of confinement as a prisoner of war, and they were the ones who prepared him to declare the gospel to other prisoners of the Viet Cong.
But it was to the Baptists he was drawn in the early days of his political career, especially after his wife was converted and baptized in the way we do it: all the way under and dripping wet. His regular attendance was as far as he would go, but that is good enough for me to claim him as a tribal chief.
These two, Aretha Franklin and John McCain, draw my attention away from the opportunistic ministers of our Baptist world toward two transcendent exemplars of what it means to be a Christian in and among our Baptist people. Watching their funerals and giving thanks for their lives makes me proud and allows me to rise above the irritation I feel toward those who ate off fine china in the White House a few days earlier.
On Monday, I was ashamed, but come Friday and Saturday, I will be so proud.