You can't buy this kind of publicity, even if you're George W. Bush and your campaign has raised more money than any other in U.S. history.
There he is on the homepage of the Southern Baptists' website, handing out "bags of ice and words of hope" on Wednesday to Floridians battered by Hurricane Frances. Whoops, there he is again on the homepage, in another photo, this time with Brother Jeb, putting ice and bottled water in another motorist's car. Oh, wait, there's a story too.
Bush is well aware of the code phrases that push evangelicals' buttonshis video address to the Southern Baptists' annual meeting in June praised them for "spreading the good news." But the really good news delivered to Bush by the nation's largest Protestant denomination is newly elected Southern Baptist Convention president Bobby Welch's whirlwind evangelical bus tour of all 50 states, now in progress. (The Baptists are the second-largest religious group in the U.S., trailing Catholics, but they have 37,000 churches, more than any other group.)
Welch mixes politics right into his altar calls. An interview with Welch by his denomination's news service goes like this, in part:
He called attention to Psalm 142, a prayer of David's when he was hiding in a cave from the evil that surrounded him. Welch said the images of evil are embedded in minds across the world, and most Americans remember those from September 11 and the Iraq war.
Welch mentioned an interview he saw with former secretary of state Henry Kissinger in which Kissinger said if Americans don't pursue terrorists abroad, the terrorists will follow them home and kill them here. The same is true with the church and the devil, he said. Christians must be on the offense if they are to have any chance of winning the fight.
Christ is the answer, of course, but he didn't make the ballot. So Bush'll do for now as a favorite son. The Southern Baptists are mounting a massive electoral campaign, called I Vote Values, which instructs believers to "examine your core values." It further commands:
Point Out: Our loyalty needs to be with the Lord Jesus Christ. Strongly consider voting for candidates who believe like you do. Don't just votevote your values!
Hey, now, this is strictly nonpartisanthe Baptists can keep their tax-exempt status. So they're not advocating any particular candidate, even though Welch is a pal of madcap General Jerry Boykin, the Pentagon intelligence official who said at a January 2003 evangelism conference at Welch's Daytona Beach church that his God "was bigger" than Allah, who was nothing but an "idol." That's from The Baptist Standard, a Texas paper that will give you an idea of how important this election is to the millions of evangelical Christians who are being mobilized to vote a few weeks hence. And they're not going to be voting for that "Hollywood" candidate, I tell you what.
On July 30, a day after Kerry was formally nominated, Bush spewed out that code word to an adoring crowd in Bible Belt capital Springfield, Missouri, home of the Southern Baptists' equally evangelical brethren, the Assemblies of God, the sect of praying mantis John Ashcroft. "We have a clear vision on how to win the war on terror and bring peace to the world," Bush told his acolytes in Springfield. "They somehow believe the heart and soul of America can be found in Hollywood. The heart and soul of America is found right here in Springfield, Missouri."
Now don't get all lathered up just because the Assemblies of God does things like run kiss-butt "profiles" of Barbara Bush and because Southern Baptist Bobby Welch mixes politics and Christ to fuel an infernal-combustion bus tour just before the November election. Remember the power of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and the importance of black churches to the civil rights movement. Just keep this evangelizing in mind when issues like the constitutional amendment on marriage pop up. Earlier this summer, the Baptists moved their Battle for Marriage III rally from August 29 to September 19 to coincide with a possible U.S. House debate on "protecting" marriage.
But that rally has been subsumed by a giant Mayday for Marriage gathering of Christian soldiers planned for October 15 in D.C. and featuring former Nixon hatchet man and convicted Watergate felon Chuck Colson, Colorado evangelical pope James Dobson, and Southern Baptist official Richard Land, who wears official presidential-seal cuff links, a present from Bush himself. They're hoping to get at least 1 million people on the Mall. (Please, men: Don't wear your wifebeaters.)
There'll be plenty of Southern Baptists there, because the denomination's leaders tell their troops, "Seek God for your government."
As to party affiliation, well, the Republicans clearly have nothing to do with this. The Baptists' marching orders include this uplifting quote from Benjamin Rush, the 18th century Philly doctor:
I have been alternately called an Aristocrat and a Democrat. I am neither. I am a Christocrat.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in New York, delivered to your inbox.