By Bill Webb
The Missouri Baptist Convention annual meeting last week at First Baptist Church of Raytown concluded with all the fervor — and the flavor — of a political rally.
Messengers watched video greetings from Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.) and U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and were read a letter of greeting from President George W. Bush. Just before the benediction of the closing session, an unannounced guest — Kit Bond, seeking re-election to the U.S. Senate — made his way to the podium.
Outgoing MBC president David Tolliver indicated Bond had been invited so messengers could thank him for his part in supporting the national marriage amendment. Before giving Bond an opportunity to address messengers, Tolliver voiced a disclaimer that the convention does not endorse particular candidates or parties.
Bond drew several rounds of applause as he thanked messengers for their leadership and stewardship. "We became a great nation because we trusted in God," Bond said, speaking from prepared notes. Bond stressed continued support for traditional marriage and underscored the need to "value every life."
When the senator finished, incoming MBC president Mitchell Jackson placed an arm around Bond's neck and asked him to stay at the podium while Jackson prayed for him. In his prayer, Jackson thanked God that Bond shared the values held by Missouri Baptists.
To the delight of most messengers, the closing session was decidedly partisan. The only political leaders who sent or brought greetings were Republicans, and they drew enthusiastic applause. Only two were running for office — President Bush and Sen. Bond.
MBC president Tolliver's advice was sound. Tax-exempt organization like the Missouri Baptist Convention and its affiliated churches do well to preserve that status by avoiding endorsing candidates or parties.
Still, it is likely that Sen. Bond left the friendly confines of the annual meeting feeling that — with six days left until Election Day — the MBC annual meeting was a pretty worthwhile stop on his campaign trail. While the convention crowd had pretty much thinned out by Wednesday morning, a number of politicians would have snapped up the opportunity to address such a group.
Just a few years back, it would have been unthinkable to invite a candidate running for office — even an incumbent — to make a speech at an MBC annual meeting. Missouri Baptists traditionally have valued their prophetic role to such an extent that they have been cautious to jump on any politician's bandwagon or to present a partisan opportunity for any one group or candidate.
Whether the crown was decidedly Democrat or overwhelmingly Republican, we have resisted the temptation to "cozy-up" as a group with any party or candidate, especially avoiding providing a platform for any one of them.
Obviously, the convention program was planned to culminate an emphasis on getting out the vote. One could have hoped that this emphasis could have been handled differently. Christian citizenship and responsibility are values every Missouri Baptist cherishes.
Our forebearers were at the forefront of the battle for religious liberty in the American republic. Baptists insisted upon the kind of religious liberty that is not to be taken lightly. They knew that this very freedom was one that could be abused. They also knew that the true power to affect change in the lives of people did not happen in the political arena but the spiritual realm. When they were at their best, they did not confuse the two worlds.
Next year, perhaps a program that builds to a climax for a missions celebration would be a higher priority. The Tuesday evening service at the convention was a highlight because it focused upon a cause that really does bring Missouri Baptists together — missions.
Messengers could have left the meeting with a fresh memory of the testimony of Iraq survivor Carrie McDonnall or the spoken words of II Timothy still ringing in their ears. Perhaps they would have left with the excitement of missions in Romania, Iraq, Puerto Rico and Colorado.