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5 things missing from Southern Baptist leaders’ letter on ISIS to Obama

Seventeen presidents of America's largest Protestant denomination call on Obama to put an end to ISIS. But their public letter lacked five critical components. - Screenshot courtesy of Jonathan Merritt

Seventeen presidents of America’s largest Protestant denomination call on Obama to put an end to ISIS. But their public letter lacked five critical components. – Screenshot courtesy of Jonathan Merritt

In an open letter addressed to President Barack Obama, Southern Baptist Convention President Ronnie Floyd and 16 past denomination presidents urged “necessary actions” to put an end to ISIS. The letter, released on Floyd’s personal website, comes just weeks after ISIS militants in Libya beheaded 21 Coptic Christians.

“We humbly call upon you to use the influence and power of your distinguished office to take the necessary actions now in this urgent hour to bring an end to these human atrocities,” the letter stated.

Upon reading this letter, I felt somewhat conflicted about its content. (In full disclosure, my father is among the former SBC presidents who signed the letter.) On the positive side, it feels like a genuine effort to speak out about an important issue and it attempts to deal directly with the matter at hand rather than score political cheap shots. Related to this, the letter was surprisingly respectful of a Democratic President with whom most of these signers have deep disagreements.

“Mr. President, just as Esther led forward for the deliverance of the Jews in her day, we believe you also ‘have come to the kingdom for such a time as this,'” the letter stated. “You have been given an historical moment to lead in protecting the people and the principle of religious freedom in the world. We are praying for you to have wisdom and courage in this hour.”

But despite its respectful tone and seemingly good intentions, the Southern Baptist leaders’ letter overlooked five critical components:

1. The Actual Date: The letter was dated March 2, 2014. This was probably a simple mistake, but it isn’t a good look. When you’re sending a public letter to the leader of the free world that you hope others will take seriously, you want to get the date right.

2. The Right Recipient: The letter was addressed to Barack Obama and seems to indicate these leaders hope for military action, but the president has already sent a draft Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) to Congress. The AUMF requests authorization for strategic airstrikes and possible ground operations for special forces. Republicans control both houses of Congress, but GOP leaders have balked at it despite their repeated calls for the president to take precisely this type of action. One has to wonder why Southern Baptist leaders did not address this letter to GOP Congressional leaders when the ball is now in their court.

3. An Insightful Introduction: As I always tell writers, the way you open and close anything you write are the two most critical components. The introductory sentence of this letter states that ISIS is a “continuing threat to world peace in a way unknown to us since the Nazis of World War II.” The comparison–often made by conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh–is somewhat legitimate and can be effective in evoking emotion and conveying a sense of magnitude. But Nazi comparisons are overused to the point of cliche and considered by many to be the height of simplicity in political discourse. Proving Godwin’s Law in the opening breath of such a letter is a no-no.

4. A Better Brag: The letter describes the Southern Baptist Convention as “America’s largest, and some say most multi-ethnic and multi-lingual, Protestant denomination in America.” Public letters often make credibility statements and the first two words are an accurate though strange inclusion for a letter claiming to be a “humble…appeal.”

But what are we to make of the statement about multi-ethnicity? The Southern Baptist Convention is still overwhelmingly white, not just in among church attendees but also among the ranks of their leadership. Every Southern Baptist seminary president is white and every Southern Baptist agency head is too. And who are the “some” that are saying such things anyway? I checked with the SBC’s LifeWay Research, and they told me they have no public data on Southern Baptist diversity. Furthermore, many other denominations don’t possess such data either, making a reliable comparison of this kind impossible. In the end, drawing attention to one’s weakness is an odd way to prove one’s strength. This letter needed a better brag.

5. A Clear Call: After reading this letter, it is difficult to determine what Southern Baptists actually want the president to do. What would bringing an end to ISIS look like, in their minds? Are they urging military action or some sort of non-violent peacemaking effort? They don’t actually say. Which makes their promise to “assure” the support of the “vast majority” of a 16-million member denomination and the applause of “the world” ring hollow.

I applaud Southern Baptist leaders’ desire to address a pressing issue with a clear moral voice, but I wish they hadn’t missed these five critical components. These missed opportunities likely ensure it will have little effect on the president or lawmakers.

UPDATE: The letter posted online was amended and updated to reflect the correct date, though the image above contains a screenshot of the original. However, as one commenter noted below, there is another typo in the letter: “America’s largest …Protestant denomination in America” is redundant.

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.


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  • Specifics is where things like this matter, but also where all the fights happen. It is odd to me that most Republican individuals that I know are broadly supportive of more focused war against ISIS, while most Democrats individuals I know are against it. But the leadership of the Congress vocally supports ‘doing something’ but isn’t taking up Obama’s authorization for force. And many democrats in Congress are not all that supportive of it either.

  • You missed the most important thing. a comment about murdering others, even others who are murderous.

    Our policies in the world have contributed to the creation of isis, as surely as they contributed to the creation of al Qaeda before it.

    As long as war is considered an appropriate means of conducting international relations, we will have more of it. I’m not saying by any means that war is not an appropriate response in this matter– it may be our only solution– but that Christianity has not exactly been in the forefront on avoiding it.

  • Jonathan, you’re so right…I’ve been saying that Congress needs to do something. Obama has made the request…why is it being shelved? Letter should have gone to Boehner and McConnell.

  • Jonathan Merritt ,
    After reading your column, I have to say that agree, mostly, with every point you made. Wrong date a bit of an embarrassment, makes me wonder if the letter was proof read. Nazis, the unspeakable horror of the Nazis movement against not just Jews but homosexuals, infirm, and even some Christians, is in a class by itself not to be compared with ISIS at this point. Their war against the Jews started at least as far back as 1936 and continued until the death camps were eliminated by the Allies. Trouble is, our national memory is fading on these terrible events. Bragging, yes not necessary but no real problem since many organizations tend to do such a thing.
    There is no need to compare ISIS to any thing for their horrible, inhuman actions speak for themselves.

    Yes it would be a good idea to send copies (with corrected date) over to congress, for what ever good it would do.

  • Basically, the letter needs an editor, especially the sentence you pointed out in #4 above. Your critique is right on target, Jonathan. I have been a Southern Baptist all my life (until recently) and these men do not speak for me. Thanks for your insightful comments, as always.

  • Great work, Jonathan. It’s refreshing to read sincere, respectful dialogue from all sides. I find the Eucharist, the “sacrament of peace,” to be an important consideration in understanding violence and how we respond to it. Merton’s “Peace in the Post-Christian Era” is also a text I have found helpful.

  • “Take the necessary actions now” … “Just as Esther led forward” …
    Sounds like they want the U.S to go behead someone….

    This letter was really badly written; it didn’t say anything specific or offer any good ideas to solve the problem, and shows how bad groupthink can be!

  • I sincerely doubt that any peace will be forthcoming, even with this letter and its correct date. It’s quite obvious that man cannot achieve worldwide peace on his own, or through his governments, for that matter! Most persons in power, including politicians, abuse the power they are given.

    However, true peace and security will be soon becachieved by God’s kingdom or government (Daniel 2:44) and I wait in grand expectation of the most marvelous blessings it will extend to meek persons of all nations on earth in the near future (Isaiah 11:1-9; Revelation 21:1-4).

  • Regardless of the letters errors, we should appreciate the willingness and courage of the SBC president to take a stand by bringing the issues directly to our president.

    Let’s not major in the minors…

    Jonathan, it would’ve been far more helpful if your article would have included something critical that it was missing…a call for Christians all over the world to PRAY. Lord, help us.

  • Are they urging military action or some sort of non-violent peacemaking effort?

    Of course their urging military action. They’re not altogether inane. You have to read the press releases of the National Council of Churches Nobody Goes To to find that.

  • “But isn’t “America’s largest … Protestant denomination in America” somewhat redundant?”

    Not necessarily. The Church of Nigeria (an Anglican church) has a missionary diocese in the U.S., and has about 18 million members (almost all in Nigeria), 3 million more than the SBC. Thus, it is a “Protestant denomination in America”, but it’s not based in the U.S. like the SBC is.

    The SBC’s apparent redundancy might be an attempt to make that distinction.

  • Stephen, Revelation is just as Christian a text as the other 26 books of the New Testament. You are actually the one who wants to “have it both ways” and you are the one who can’t. Let me explain.
    Before the Lord Jesus Christ came to this earth, God chose a peculiar nation to be His own. In that nation, glorious hints of God’s ultimate purpose to save all mankind would burst forth – in the Pahraohs who knew Joseph, in Rahab, Ruth, the Ninevites who repented when God called Jonah to go to them – etc. in fact, the unwillingness of the Jewish leaders to go forth in the world with the truth of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, caused judgment to fall upon them – and dispersion from their land. Always God has so loved the world. As the Lord Jesus points out, God sent them servants, prophets, and finally His own beloved Son. But all were soundly rejected, and wicked Jewish authorities, in cahoots with wicked Gentile authorities, put the Lord on the cross. This did not take God the Father by surprise. Far from “Abrahamic myths” the narrative of the Old Testament exactly is about the fulfillment of God’s plan to save mankind. He is merciful, patient, kind, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.
    Truly, with this loving God, we, like the Hebrews of old, SHOULD be grateful and fall down in awe of such grace, love and forgiveness, and share such good news with everyone.
    But we instead deny, deny, deny. Deny the Word that proclaims the Messiah, deny that we need a Messiah’s blood to save us, deny that God would ever judge people who reject Him. For what we see now is temporal; it will pass away, and what will those who have rejected God then do, since eternity lasts forever and they have rejected the one way to their Heavenly Father?
    It should give post-modern men and women great pause when they remember Jesus’ words, “As it was in the days of Noah, so it shall be at my return…” That particular Abrahamic “myth” had one recurring theme about it: Violence. Over and over again, we are told of the violence of men. The total destruction of wicked mankind would have been assured, except for the grace of God in saving Noah and his family. Not one person reading this, would be reading this, except for God’s amazing salvation in that day. And this is just what Revelation pictures, isn’t it? A world on fire with war, greed, enslavement, beheadings – with humanity doomed unless the grace of God saves us from ourselves.
    You know, I think those ancient men’s words shouldn’t be carelessly dismissed.
    P.S.: re: “you and all fundamentalists” – I think fundamentalists love God, too, Stephen. To take God at His Word is a very humble – and often, hard – thing to do. It’s what the Virgin Mary did, when she quoted the Old Testament almost verbatim in her Magnificat. Oh, wait a minute…she couldn’t “really” have been a virgin; she was just a young woman, right (wink, wink)?

  • Concur Larry. Immature, petulant, and shallow in his criticism–although I do have issues with the letter but not for any of his stated. I anticipated a more sincere thoughtful poignant critique of such a serious subject rather than a sophomoric response.

  • “…what are we to make of the statement about multi-ethnicity? The Southern Baptist Convention is still overwhelmingly white, …Every S B seminary president is white and every Southern Baptist agency head is too. -”

    Worse still, the S.B.Convention is overwhelmingly white MALE…recently regressive to the point of idiocy…But I guess that is not important…that they RECENTLY drove women from their ranks of leadership with an evident distaste for women not unlike that of ISIS…women who are, I guess, not FULLY HUMAN or fully Christian in their eyes…they need to look in the mirror and repent of their own record before taking such a step as they have dared to do.

  • Stephen, almost as long as history itself, this maxim has proved true: name- calling is the crutch of the person who has no leg to stand on in an argument. (That is why in my original post, I made sure to reference your “fundamentalists” barb.)
    Call me a Bible-thumper if it makes you happy. By all means avoid dealing with the Lord Jesus Christ, the fact of your own sinfulness, and the blood He shed because He loves you. Ignore His resurrection if you feel you must. but please quit calling others names.
    Re: Pauline propaganda: Jesus Himself taught that if we receive those He sent (i.e., His Apostles) we receive Him – and God, Who sent Jesus. If we don’t recieve Paul’s writings, we don’t really know Christ at all.

  • Judy, I too have been disheartened by the marginalization of women in the SBC. One of the most amazing things Jesus did, was interact with women as human beings worthy of dignity (Paul did, too.). If you haven’t already, check out The Junia Project and Christians for Biblical Equality.

  • Stephen,

    God and his Word, the entire Bible, will be vindicated as truthful, and I will continue to exercise true faith in God, his Word, and his promises. False religion will also be exposed for what it is and meet its end at God’s hand.

    As prophecied at Isaiah 11:9, the earth will finally be filled with the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea; and it will be accurate and truthful.

  • You misinterpret Godwin’s Law: “The law and its corollaries do not apply to discussions covering known mainstays of Nazi Germany such as genocide, eugenics, or racial superiority, nor, more debatably, to a discussion of other totalitarian regimes or ideologies, if that was the explicit topic of conversation, because a Nazi comparison in those circumstances may be appropriate, in effect committing the fallacist’s fallacy.” If ever there was a circumstance where the Nazi comparison would be appropriate, this would be it.

  • I would also like to point out that not all Baptists Churches are members of the Southern Baptist Convention. Many are Independent and to my knowledge noone has ever taken a census of everyone in the Baptist Denomination. I dont even think its a good idea to take one. Secondly invoking the Nazi example brings to memory that the Holocaust was largely ignored along with Hitlers agression through the late 1930’s to 1941. America was at that time doing everything it could to stay out of WWII. Allowing extremism to follow its own course until it gets large enough that it can no longer be ignored was and is a very expensive choice in lives and treasure. In WWII it took efforts of every able bodied man and alot of women to destroy the Facists. In this case it may take Jesus coming back to make things right. Finally we as Christians cannot be short-sighted as to the threat. These are the same people who authored 911. Their blood-lust is unquenchable. There is no reasoning with someone who kill children for their faith, so diplomacy is a non-solution. The truth of 911 is that it doesnt matter if you are a christian, jew, agnostic,budist, atheist, or Shia Muslum. If you aren’t a jihadist you are worthy of death. Its not an intellectual debate involving hypothetical or political rhetoric. Its real life and death decisions. Whats it going to be folks?