“Where’s the Backbone?”

That’s the title above the letter to the editor that appeared in this (Thursday) morning’s Times-Picayune. Here it is, all three paragraphs.

“Nothing depresses me about the future of our city more than learning from Wednesday morning’s James Gill column that our two mayoral candidates meekly signed the All Congregations Together pledge, agreeing to a retreat with the group’s preachers within 45 days of election, agreeing to meet with them on a bi-monthly basis thereafter, and agreeing to run all major appointments by them in advance.

“I don’t blame the preachers for asking for it, but am absolutely amazed by the lack of backbone in Mayor Ray Nagin and Mitch Landrieu in agreeing to such.

“God help us. I wonder who else they are caving in to?”

The letter was signed, not only with my name, but underneath with my title, “Director of Missions,” and under that, “Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans.” That’s what gave me pause when it showed up on this morning’s editorial page.

Maybe I should have just signed my name and let it go at that. After all, in no way was I speaking for all the Southern Baptist churches of the area, not even in a representative way as their leader.

I recall something from a friend of mine a while back.

Henry Couch was pastor of the wonderful Providence Baptist Church in Charlotte, NC, in the 1980’s. One morning the Charlotte Observer was filled with news of the organization of a splinter group from the Southern Baptist Convention, something called the Southern Baptist Alliance. Henry was prominent in print and photos as founding leader of the organization. For that he got in trouble with some of his members. It turned out not everyone in his church was sympathetic to the liberal (or moderate) wing of the denomination, many of them were outright conservatives, and they did not appreciate their pastor’s tying their church in with this movement. Henry informed them that he was acting as a private individual, not as pastor of the church. He and a neighboring pastor discussed it over coffee one day and the friend offered his take on that subject. “Henry,” he said, “look at the sign in front of the church. Whose name is on it? Yours. You are the pastor of that church. Everything you do reflects on that congregation. You and I are not allowed the luxury of acting sometimes as pastors of our churches and other times as private individuals.”

This afternoon at 4 pm, the First Baptist Church of New Orleans hosted a debate between the two mayoral candidates that was held primarily for the benefit of local pastors. Pastor Dennis Watson of Celebration asked me this morning if I planned to come. I said, “Yes, but don’t ask me to do anything. I just called both candidates spineless in this morning’s paper.”

Second guessing oneself is a futile activity, but I confess to doing it off and on throughout the day. Perhaps I should not have written that letter to the editor. On the other hand, I criticized them both, so no one can accuse me of partisanship. And I still stand by what I said. Maybe I should have taken my title out of the letter. Wouldn’t want the pastors today to think I thought I was speaking for them.

From time to time, reporters would ask Harry Truman if he regretted dropping the two atomic bombs on Japan. His answers did not vary. “I never second guess myself,” he said. “I did what I thought was the right thing to do at the time, and given the same circumstances would do it again.” End of subject.

But I’m not Harry Truman. The last thing I would want to do is offend one of my pastor brethren. Offending the candidates is another thing, one I would not seriously mind doing since they have certainly offended us often enough, and being politicians, they know how to slough it off and move on.

I took six pages of notes on today’s debate. Not that what was said was that remarkable. I just did not want to leave out something memorable.

The debate was sponsored by the Greater New Orleans Pastors Coalition, a group formed in the aftermath of Katrina when spiritual leaders decided they needed to be working together. Dennis Watson, the organizer, opened and closed the event. Gene Mills of a pastors’ group called PRC Compassion emceed. A panel sat stage right, composed of David Crosby, host pastor, Bishop J. D. Wylie of the Life Center Church, Father William Maestri of the N.O. Archdiocese, Fred Luter of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, and Michael Green, pastor of Faith Church. Stage left, one table, two candidates.

I’ll spare you the blow by blow account. The tone was highly respectful, non-confrontational, reasonable. We had heard much of what Mayor Nagin and Lt. Governor Landrieu said on television numerous times. Here follows some that we had not heard.

Michael Green: “Psalm One says, ‘Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly.’ Whom do you look to for counsel?” Landrieu goes on religious retreats. As a Catholic, his teachers are Jesuits. Nagin belongs to two Catholic churches, and there is a group of ministers in the city he meets with on a regular basis. (All Congregations Together? he didn’t say.) “In the darkest hour of Katrina,” Nagin said, “I went directly to the Lord.”

Father Maestri: “Will you continue to recognize domestic partnerships in city government? And what about the (homosexuals’) Decadence Festival?” Both candidates say on the first issue, they are bound to uphold the law, that it’s simply a matter of providing health care. Both favor restricting the Decadence Festival, not tolerating lewdness. Nagin says he now lives in the French Quarter since the storm ruined his home, so he knows the situation from a new vantage point. Landrieu wants the media to focus on St. Charles Avenue’s family atmosphere during Mardi Gras and other festivals instead of Bourbon Street.

David Crosby: “What books are you reading?” Neither has much time for reading these days. Landrieu says the last book he read is Friedman’s “The World is Flat.” Nagin says he tries to read “The Purpose Driven Life” at least yearly.

Fred Luter: “God gave Solomon his wish. What would you ask God for?” Landrieu: “Unconditional love.” Nagin: “A good night’s sleep.”

Maestri: “I take it, Mayor, you are not going to be reading Doug Brinkley’s book, ‘The Great Deluge.'” (Laughter)

Nagin: “I might read it later. But only if someone buys it for me.”

Maestri: “I think the lieutenant governor will be passing them out!” (More laughter.)

Maestri: “Will you be welcoming the Hispanic invasion into New Orleans?” Nagin sees them as playing a big role in our recovery. What he has seen of their work locally has impressed him. Landrieu says racial diversity is a strength, not a weakness. Nagin added, “I don’t think the Hispanics are going to be needing much help from us. They are very resourceful and take care of themselves.”

Bishop Wylie: “What lessons were learned from Katrina?” Mitch Landrieu, as though providing a three point outline for the preachers who were his audience, said, “No clear command. No clear coordination. And no clear communication.” Ray Nagin said, “The problems we had were shelters of last resort and the response of the federal government. Next time, there will be no shelters, period.”

David Crosby asked, “How broken this city is?” At first I thought he was asking a spiritual question, but the candidates heard it as a financial one. The mayor said, “We have enough money in our treasury to get through December.” Landrieu said, “Only the mayor knows. He has the books.”

Was the debate–if that’s what it was–helpful to the 75 or 100 who attended? If seeing the candidates in person and up close helps, then it was. If getting solid information about what to expect if either of these men are chosen is how we gauge success, then it was a mixed bag.

We were invited to submit questions for the candidates. I handed a slip of paper to Jay Adkins and asked him to write my question. “In today’s Times-Picayune, one of our ministers said both of you lack backbone for signing the ACT pledge. How do you respond?”

I would have given a hundred dollars to have had that question placed before them. It wasn’t.

It takes a good deal of backbone to ask a tough question to a politician. Something inside us cringes at the notion of their being embarrassed, and we want them to have a good impression of their visit to our place. I was a pastor for over four decades and have had my share of governors and mayors and others on my platform; I know the temptation.

Most of the men on that platform today are friends of mine whose friendship I treasure, so this must not be taken as criticism of them. But in forums such as we had today, I would like us to be a little less respectful and a tad more confrontive. To sound less like they did us a favor by showing up, and to acknowledge that they need us as much as we need them.

I don’t know a soul in the All Congregations Together group, but I’m thinking more and more they struck the right balance in demanding something of the candidates. (Contrary to what I said in my brief letter to the editor, I do fault them for asking the future mayor to sign such a pledge; I just did not want to cloud the issue which is the timidity of these mayoral candidates.)

The man of God must always keep his integrity and the freedom to criticize government leaders, while never disrespecting them. He will want to pray for these civic leaders, but be strong enough to say ‘no’ to some of their invitations. That’s where he will be needing the wisdom of Solomon.

One more reason to pray for our pastors, that they will be men of soft hearts and strong spines.

1 thought on ““Where’s the Backbone?”

  1. None of what I’m reading about New Orleans surprises me. The sheeple blindly went to the polls and cast their lots with two politicians who’ll say the right things and then do nothing. Don’t hold your breath waiting for anything positive to happen. Having been reared in Louisiana for almost all of my life, I can say that you can trust your elected leaders; they’ll let you down every time. Anyway,God’s blessings to all of the area pastors who are doing the true work of rebuilding.

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