SBC & Politics: Why I Made a Motion to Exclude Politicians from the Annual Meeting (Dr. Marshal L. Ausberry, Sr.)

At the 2018 Southern Baptist Convention, I made a motion that beginning in 2019 the SBC would refrain from allowing elected officials to speak at the Convention. The exception was for the host Mayor or appropriate official to give a welcome greeting and to receive thanks from the Convention for hosting the Convention.

The reason I feel it is time for such a position for the Convention is multi-fold. It has nothing to do with Vice President Mike Pence speaking at the 2018 Convention. In my opinion, Vice President Pence and Mrs. Pence are good godly people.

Though some were calling for the Convention to disinvite Vice President Pence, I felt it would have been inappropriate to disinvite the Vice President once the SBC leadership had agreed for him to speak. That move would have produced fodder for the news media and reflected poorly on our Convention. It would have been like inviting someone to your house for dinner and then publicly telling them not to show up. That’s not who we are!

Briefly, my reason for the motion is that the SBC members are not politically monolithic! In our SBC churches we have people that ride elephants; some ride donkeys; some ride both and some ride neither; some are fiercely independent; and some even sip tea. And that is just reality! However, when the optics appear that any political party is embraced at the Convention, no matter what is said by SBC leadership in an attempt to make it palatable, the results cause division and confusion in the body.

In addition, the SBC should be fiercely independent politically! Unfortunately, when politically elected officials are given primary platform time, the optics outweigh our words of being independent! I’ve heard some say that it looks like “The SBC is a wing of the Republican Party” and “The SBC is in bed with the Republican Party.” The SBC must be fiercely independent in order to speak truth to power and not give the appearance of being co-opted by any party.

Now I fully endorse SBC officials having a dialogue with an administration; being advisors and counselors to an administration; and praying for and with an administration. I think we see throughout the Old Testament God’s people engaging with pharaohs, governors, rulers, and kings. But always uncompromisingly independent!

In addition, I don’t know if a President Bill Clinton would have been allowed to speak; I don’t know if a President Barack Obama would have been allowed to speak; and I don’t know if a President Hilary Clinton would have been allowed to speak at an SBC annual meeting. The Bible will challenge us enough, we can avoid creating an environment that divides us politically and unnecessarily!

I hope and pray that my SBC will embrace that Convention time is not the time for politically elected officials. It is time that all Southern Baptists come together as one Body in Christ, our Lord and Savior.

I hope and pray that the leadership of the SBC sensed the concern in the body as they deliberate and make decisions for 2019 and beyond.

Marshal L. Ausberry, Sr.
President, National African American Fellowship of the SBC

Dr. Marshal Ausberry is the senior pastor of Antioch Baptist Church in Fairfax Station, VA and is the President of the NAAF. Among other degrees, he holds a D.Min. and Th.M. in Preaching from Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary. You can find him on Twitter at @MAusberry.

Unconvinced by Bart Barber’s Case for Prioritizing Strict Immigration Enforcement

Yesterday here at Voices, Bart Barber wrote A Non-Nativist Case for Strict Enforcement of Immigration Law. There are several reasons I approached Bart’s article with a lot of anticipation. One of which is the huge amount of respect I have for Bart. Another is that he’s helped me think through immigration-related issues before (here, here, here, and here, for example) in ways that have been really, really helpful. 

But yesterday’s post left me scratching my head. It’s not that I think Bart is wrong in advocating for the principle of strict enforcement of immigration laws. I’m for border security and better enforcement. I and many other Southern Baptists have signed the EIT Statement of Principles, which includes, as two of its six key principles, “Respects the rule of law” and “Guarantees secure national borders.”

So why did Bart’s piece not sit well with me? I’ve reflected some and I think there are two main reasons. First, I think Bart gives right answers to some of the wrong questions. Second, I think his main thesis fails under scrutiny because there are significant exceptions to the principle he lays out. Jumping from lax enforcement of bad laws to strict enforcement of bad laws may lead us to even greater injustice than what we’re currently seeing.

Agreement

Let’s start with where I think Bart is correct. (1) We want laws that accomplish just outcomes for everyone. (2) Lack of enforcement of immigration law can cause injustice in countless ways. (3) This one is huge and I really appreciate Bart highlighting it: We should reject the nativist, protectionist arguments often being advanced these days. (4) Our current system and lack of enforcement have unfairly disadvantaged potential immigrants, refugees, and others who don’t have access to a land border into the U.S. (5) Our immigration enforcement should take place without separating families at the border. 

Let’s not gloss over these areas of agreement. There is a lot here. A lot of substance. And I wish that all of those involved in this debate could start from this foundation. 

Problem #1: Wrong Questions

With that foundation in place, I think Bart’s argument answered questions that most people aren’t asking at this point. Maybe they should be, but I don’t think that’s where the conversation is. I understand Bart to be saying we have two options to even out the inequality between border/non-border situations: Either we ease access for non-border countries or we restrict access* for border countries. 

The only conversation seemingly taking place at this point is restricting access. There is a push from the far right and this administration to severely limit all immigration, not to potentially expand immigration from non-border countries. That’s why I say this may be the right answer (making sure access is equitable) but in our current situation that’s going to be nearly universally understood as an argument for restriction. 

Another fear I have is advocating for “strict enforcement” in this climate possibly communicates an approval of the harsh tactics currently in the headlines. Bart, to his credit, expressly denounces the deterrent strategy of separating families. Also, “strict enforcement” of the laws may actually point to a more humane way of treating asylum seekers than the family separation practice recently implemented (and more recently potentially reversed) by the Trump administration. I’ve seen some argue that asylum seekers are promised due process that would be more, not less, compassionate. But I don’t think that’s how Bart’s headline would normally be interpreted. Wish that everyone who saw the headline would stick around long enough to read Bart’s last paragraph! 

Problem #2: Exceptions to the Thesis

I understand the heart of Bart’s argument to rest on his fifth paragraph:

Rather, I’m arguing for the strict enforcement of immigration law (and I’m open to the improvement of the laws on the books) because I believe that these laws provide justice for immigrants themselves. When our immigration laws go unenforced, the result is injustice for immigrants.

Bart makes a great case that unenforced immigration laws cause injustice to certain immigrants – particularly immigrants without access to a U.S. land border. No argument there. But what needs to be said in addition is that in our complex, confusing immigration system, there are times that strict enforcement of the law can create a different kind of injustice – one that could be worse than the first. 

As an example, I watched this documentary about a year ago. One thing I haven’t been able to forget is the first-hand accounts contained where immigration laws were enforced but clearly led to injustice, rather than fair, common-sense outcomes. If you’re short on time, jump ahead to the 27:00 mark and listen to the story of Bruce and his family. 

Moving from lax enforcement of bad laws to strict enforcement of bad laws potentially puts us in a situation where we’re still dealing with the problem of injustice – maybe of a different kind and possibly even more severe. We have injustice now? Yes. The answer isn’t trading for another kind of (potentially worse) injustice. 

The logical progression that I understand from Bart’s post could be expressed this way:

Lax Enforcement -> Strict Enforcement -> Fix the Laws

I believe a better paradigm, a better general strategy would be to swap the second and third steps:

Lax Enforcement -> Fix the Laws -> Strict Enforcement

 

Of course, the reality is more complicated. We are not going to choose only enforcement or only fixing laws. We should move forward on both fronts. The question comes down to emphasis or priority. Which comes temporally first? Which comes logically first? My argument here is that fixing the laws ought to take temporal and logical priority. But again, we don’t have to choose either/or.

If we moved strategically, we could move forward in both areas without increasing injustice. Securing the border with a physical barrier (or other effective means) would be a step forward in enforcement with no (that I can see) potentially greater injustice associated. While the border is being secured in that way, let’s focus our other energy on improving existing laws so they really are more just and fair. Then, with the border secure and better immigration laws in place, we move fairly into a mindset of strict enforcement. 

Moving from ‘where we are now’ directly into a mode of strict enforcement skips important steps that safeguard human dignity and compassion. We have better options available and, especially as the church, we should make every effort to get to our destination making sure people are treated fairly in the process.

And I think when you get down to it, Bart’s position is probably not much different than what I’ve tried to argue for here. And that gives me hope I’m not too far off base.

 


*Please note when I talk about access here, I’m talking about legal accessibility. This is not an argument against a physical barrier. The point of the physical barrier is to force people trying to enter to go through an established legal process.

Rescued from Politics, Refocused in the Pulpit

There was a time in my young adult life I was very involved in politics. VERY involved. I was a pro-life lobbyist in Kentucky. I worked long and hard for Jim Bunning way back when he was a congressman (even marched with him and his precious wife Mary in the March for Life in DC). Almost took a job in Senator Mitch McConnell’s office. Had numerous friends that worked in Washington congressional offices. Was partly responsible for starting a multi-county “Young Republican” club in Eastern Kentucky. While President of that YR club, I (along with my team) organized and hosted the Young Republican State Convention in Kentucky one year. I was ecstatic when Gingrich’s Contract for America swept the November elections of 94. I was active in our city government and was being groomed, so to speak, to run for local office and then maybe eventually something higher. I even met my wife Michelle because, as the Student Activities Coordinator at our local community college, she was the one with whom I had to meet to organize a “College Republican” club on that campus.

All that to say, I was once the guy so eaten up with politics that I could not see past the rightness of “the Right.” I was the guy that argued that the Republican Party was not just the Party of Lincoln, it was the Party of Jesus. I’m so terribly embarrassed by that myopic viewpoint now that it is hard to admit these things publicly.

When I submitted to the pastorate things changed for me. It was not a speedy adjustment but a significant and substantive adjustment. My desires changed and my heart took a beating down like the wet clay on a potter’s wheel. I began to see things differently. By the year 2000 (at age 27 and 3 years into my first pastorate), I became convicted that my allegiance to a political philosophy overshadowed (at best) or dictated (at worst) my interpretation of scripture’s truths.

My shift away from partisan politics was so significant and the swing was so hard that I am on record for arguing (early in my ministry) that we should move away from the notion of the SBC having a “lobbying” arm. In the early 2000’s I told whomever would listen (no blogs back then and I didn’t have MySpace) that we should jettison the idea of the ERLC (formerly called the Christian Life Commission) so that we could make a clean break from feeling beholden to, or inadvertently being identified with any political party (by that I meant the Republican Party in particular). It was clear to me that the southern, evangelical, white church had become inextricably enmeshed, to the point of identity confusion, with the Republican Party, while at the same time, my African-American brothers and sisters seemed similarly trapped on the other side through having been courted and wooed by the Democratic Party. I just wanted us to be out of the sticky, miry quicksand of partisan politics.

Today I find myself, at this point in my ministry, thankful to God that we haven’t set aside the ERLC because I am now convinced of the importance of the prophetic voice it has to challenge us from within our own tribe. Whether deliberate or not, the ERLC is serving as a voice to call our convention of churches to reflect on, give critical examination to and maybe call us to retool our thinking about partisan politics on BOTH sides of the aisle. I’m not sure everyone is listening but I sure wish they would. This is good stuff. Let me also just say, this does not mean I am in agreement with every point of everything that is written or espoused at the ERLC but I receive with anticipation and appreciation any challenge or encouragement I get from those who’ve been entrusted with this charge.

In place of our churches seeing things through elephant or donkey shaded lenses, should we not be submitting our opinions to a biblical framework which, whether you like it or not, will not always snap into any one particular political grid? This was a long, difficult journey for me but boy was it “liberating” (see what I did there?) Seriously, it was freeing to see something that I was previously blind to. I just didn’t know. My motives were altruistic and sincere but I was blinded by politics. I had good intentions, but we all know where that leads.

I call upon my white brothers and sisters to set aside your possibly unrealized penchant for the religious right of the Republican Party and upon my black brothers and sisters, who’ve for too long looked to the Democratic Party for empowerment, to set aside those loyalties and come together to work on a better hermeneutic. One that is scripture-based where we agree that Jesus is the only “right” we need and he’s all the “empowerment” we will ever want. Let’s remember, that in Christ, there is unity, not division.

By the way, I have a small bust of Newt Gingrich and a few books signed by he and Rush Limbaugh that I’m still trying to offload if anyone is looking for a few novelty items. P.S. I’m keeping the small bust of Reagan (cause it’s Reagan) and my baseball signed by Jim Bunning… the guy threw a no-hitter in both leagues!

A Non-Nativist Case for Strict Enforcement of Immigration Law

It is the major purpose of law to provide justice for people who are experiencing injustice. A law is a good law if it intends a just outcome. A law is an effective law if it actually accomplishes more justice than it causes injustice.

Immigration law is no exception to this general rule. We have immigration law in order to provide justice to people and to minimize the level of injustice suffered by people. To determine whether our immigration laws are good or bad, effective or ineffective, we merely must examine how well they are accomplishing just outcomes for the people affected by them.

It is my belief that, as is the case with most kinds of laws, when immigration laws go unenforced, the result is greater injustice than when imperfect laws (the only kind we have) are enforced.

Now, a lot of the arguments I read in favor of the strict enforcement of immigration law seem to arise from a perspective that doing so provides protection for those who are already American citizens (whether protection from downward wage pressure, from purported crimes committed by immigrants, or from feared terrorism). None of those reasons lie behind my position. I am not an economic protectionist; I am a free-market capitalist. The idea that immigration fuels crime has been, from what I have seen, pretty soundly debunked by the relevant data. And all of the terrorist acts committed on American soil have been, I do believe, committed by either natural-born citizens or LEGAL immigrants.

Rather, I’m arguing for the strict enforcement of immigration law (and I’m open to the improvement of the laws on the books) because I believe that these laws provide justice for immigrants themselves. When our immigration laws go unenforced, the result is injustice for immigrants.

Sometimes injustice is measured by wrongs done to everyone, but not nearly always. It is a nonetheless unjust situation when one person gets something much better than he or she deserves while another person gets something much worse than he or she deserves. Most unjust situations actually benefit someone. This is true of American immigration law. When our laws go unenforced and when illegal immigration is tolerated, the result is a net injustice that greatly favors some immigrants at the expense of others.

I was personally unaware of these dimensions of American immigration law until our church became significantly involved in missionary work in Africa. When we fail to enforce our immigration laws, the result certainly is one of greater opportunity for immigrants who can enter America across land borders (primarily Mexican and Central American immigrants). Those opportunities do not equally extend, however, to immigrants from Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, various island nations around the world, and yes, even the Middle East. Poverty is no less real in those parts of the world. Oppression is no less real there. It is just as possible to mouth the American dream in Pashto, Mandinka, or Ukrainian as it is to do so in Spanish. The benefits of immigration from other parts of the world is no less than with regard to our nearest neighbors, and the risks are no greater. The more our country experiences illegal immigration from nearby neighbors, the less appetite and capacity our nation has for welcoming immigrants from other parts of the world. We need to enforce our immigration laws in order to right this injustice.

We can do this without separating families at the border or descending into immigrant-bashing. I’d be perfectly happy to have more immigration so long as it were more fair. We need functional borders that distribute the opportunity of American citizenship fairly. We need just immigration laws. We need to enforce them justly and with firm resolve. Those who are winners under the present unjust system will object to the change. Those who are losers under the present unjust system do not have any voice by which they can object. We need to do it anyway, for the sake of justice.