Lottie Moon: The feisty patron saint of global Baptist missions

Lottie Moon: The feisty patron saint of global Baptist missions

It was soon after Thanksgiving when Chelsen Vicari noticed a new foreign-missions display at the Southern Baptist church she joined after moving to Fancy Gap, in the Southwest Virginia hills.

What caught her eye was a large -- sort of -- image of Lottie Moon, a pioneer missionary and educator in the late 19th Century.

"I was relatively new to Southern Baptist life, so I had no idea who she was," said Vicari, describing that moment two years ago. "I couldn't understand why they made the cardboard cutout so short. … I asked around and what everybody kept telling me was that she was a missionary in China and that she was really short -- like 4-foot-3."

Vicari kept digging and found details that, as a writer, left her intrigued. For starters, the Southern Baptist project long known as the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering -- with deep ties to the Women's Missionary Union -- has raised $4.4 billion since 1888. The International Mission Board's 2017 goal is $160 million.

Eventually, Vicari read many of the letters Moon began writing after she reached China in 1873. These inspiring and poignant epistles, over her 40 years of service, helped change how Baptists built their global work in missions.

The letters challenged comfortable Americans to consider the needs of suffering people in China. But they also included blunt quotations such as: "I have a firm conviction that I am immortal until my work is done," and "I would I had a thousand lives that I might give them to the women of China!"

Moon died on Christmas Eve, 1912, her body weakened by a near-starvation diet she adopted while serving others during a famine.

Southern Baptists vs. Mormons, again

If Southern Baptists gather for a seminar on what Mormons believe, the odds are good that one of the teachers will be a former member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Then again, if Mormons gather for a seminar on what Southern Baptists believe, the odds are good that one of the teachers will be a former Southern Baptist.

"There's an important word that people forget when they start talking about Southern Baptists and Mormons and that word is 'competition,' " said the Rev. Richard Land, one of the most outspoken leaders of America's largest non-Catholic flock. He leads the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

"We are talking about the two most evangelistic churches in North America and most of the world," he said. "There are lots of Mormons who used to be Baptists and lots of Baptists who used to be Mormons. ... It's natural to see some tensions now and then."

Meanwhile, some Mormons and Baptists keep colliding in the public square every four years or so -- just about the time White House wannabes butt heads in Republican debates.

The latest storm centered on remarks by the Rev. Robert Jeffress of the First Baptist Church of Dallas. A supporter of Rick Perry of Texas, Jeffress told the recent Values Voters Summit crowd that Mormon Mitt Romney is "not a real Christian" and later insisted on calling the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a "theological cult."

Obviously, that language offends Mormons, said Land. Truth is, no one in today's Southern Baptist leadership believes that modern Mormons should be described with the word "cult" as most Americans would understand this hot-button term, defined according to "psychological or sociological" factors.

"Clearly the Mormons are anything but that," he said. "They're the president of your Rotary Club and the leaders of your local bank. No one thinks they're one of the dangerous, separatistic cults that you read about in headlines -- people like Jim Jones or the Branch Davidians."

However, most Baptists and members of many other Christian churches have grown up hearing Mormonism described in "theological or doctrinal" terms. A Southern Baptist website on new religious movements states: "A cult ... is a group of people polarized around someone's interpretation of the Bible and is characterized by major deviations from orthodox Christianity relative to the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith, particularly the fact that God became man in Jesus Christ."

In recent years, Land has numbered himself among those who describe Mormonism as a kind of fourth Abrahamic tradition, a new faith that has reinterpreted the past under the guidance of its own prophet and its own scriptures. In this case, he said, "Joseph Smith is like Mohammad and The Book of Mormon is like the Koran." Mormons believe they have restored true Christianity, while Trinitarian churches reject this claim that they have lost the faith.

Thus, it's not surprising that a new LifeWay Research survey of 1,000 liberal and conservative Protestant clergy in America found that 75 percent disagreed with this statement: "I personally consider Mormons (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) to be Christians." The surprise was that 48 percent of mainline Protestant pastors strongly agreed that Mormons are not Christians.

Meanwhile, the Vatican in 2001 posted its stance on this issue: "Whether the baptism conferred by the community The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, called Mormons in the vernacular, is valid."

The response from the late Pope John Paul II was blunt: "Negative." His verdict validated that of scholar Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who is now Pope Benedict XVI.

Of course, the reason these issues are being debated in the first place is that Romney -- a prominent Mormon leader -- is a Republican frontrunner in an era in which conservative Catholic and Protestant voters play a prominent role in Iowa, South Carolina and numerous other primary contests. Mormons voters and donors are crucial, as well.

Land, who urged Romney to seek the presidency in 2008, is convinced most conservative believers will have no trouble backing the former Massachusetts governor, when push comes to shove.

"Most people know that they're voting for a president, not a Bible-study leader," he said. "Actually, the problem Romney is having in the primaries is not that he's a Mormon, but that many GOP voters are not sure that he's Mormon enough."

Rights and wrongs of Pastor Terry Jones

The deaths of the 10 International Assistance Mission medical workers inspired headlines that were both shocking and numbingly familiar, since these are dangerous times for believers whose convictions steer them into Afghanistan. A Taliban blandly leader told the press: "They were Christian missionaries and we killed them all."

If the gunmen had only waited a few weeks, they could have claimed that their victims were linked to a powerful global conspiracy to burn Korans.

That's the kind of statement that the head of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission was worried about when he -- with countless other evangelicals -- urged the Rev. Terry Jones to cancel his "International Burn a Koran Day" event on Sept. 11. The leader of the tiny Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla., did precisely that, but not before forcing religious and political leaders to wrestle with agonizing First Amendment issues.

"The behavior of this church is not Christian. I cannot imagine Christ burning any religious texts," argued the Rev. Richard Land, in an online Washington Post forum. "This behavior is unfortunately one of the prices we pay for living in a free society with freedom of speech and freedom of expression, even when it is odious and reprehensible."

A protest of this kind would "besmirch the reputation of our Savior, and that makes it blasphemy," he said. The whole idea was "appalling, disgusting and brainless."

The bonfire would have made life more dangerous for missionaries, human-rights activists, diplomats and American soldiers. Those flames also would have made life much more dangerous for Christian converts and members of other religious minorities in predominantly Muslim lands.

Nevertheless, these clergy and politicos had to wrestle with the fact that Jones had every right to buy copies of the Koran and, after planning a fire small enough to wink at local laws, strike a match.

After all, this would, have been another act of painful symbolic speech.

Did the American Nazis have a constitutional right to march in Skokie, Ill., a Chicago suburb that was home to numerous Holocaust survivors? Yes, and demonstrators in the Reagan White House era burned the American flag. Muslims overseas have burned copies of the novel, "The Satanic Verses," by Salman Rushdie, and Bibles, too.

How many times have followers of the Rev. Fred Phelps of Topeka, Kan., waved their lurid signs -- "God Hates the U.S.A." is one of the mildest -- at funerals for soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan? On Sept. 11, the Westboro Baptist Church crew burned a Koran and an American flag at the same time. For once, most journalists elected to look the other way.

In the case of Jones and his church in Gainesville, the Council on American-Islamic Relations decided that the timing of his Koran travesty was simply too hot to ignore. Even though the group regularly ignores the videos that it receives of people burning, shooting or ripping apart Islam's holy book, CAIR decided to issue a July 19 press release announcing its own protest of "International Burn a Koran Day." The group handed out free copies of the Koran.

The word was officially out and the media storm kept growing as angry reactions -- from Arab streets to the White House -- rolled into the world's newsrooms.

Lost in the din were the quiet, measured words of many religious leaders who tried to walk a knife's edge of logic in their public statements.

For starters, they had to note the painful fact that the Dove World Outreach Center was an independent Pentecostal congregation and its members were responsible to no higher religious authority than their own pastor. Thus, there was no one who could stop this event, other than public officials who, in order to do so, would have had to trample the rights of Jones and his flock.

The bottom line: Blasphemy is not illegal in the United States of America.

As the clock ticked down, Land stressed that the "only thing more dangerous than what this pastor is doing would be to allow the government to interfere. This would set a terrible precedent and would diminish all our First Amendment rights. The best way to combat this is to exercise our free speech right to condemn what he is doing in the simplest way and most direct terms."

The Word according to Tim Tebow

After being knocked halfway to kingdom come, Tim Tebow knew that millions of college football fans would be paying close attention to his eyes the next time he led the Florida Gators into action. Viewers would be looking for signs that the quarterback was OK after a nasty concussion. Many would also want to see which Bible reference would be written in the patches of eye black that would be visible whenever television cameras focused on the face of America's most famous muscular Christian.

Tebow was wearing Isaiah 40:31 when he got hurt against Kentucky: "But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint."

This biblical commentary continued when he returned against LSU, with a reference pointing to 1 Thessalonians 5:18: "In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you."

The Palm Beach Post put it this way: "Give thanks in all circumstances."

Not exactly.

You see, it's hard to avoid quoting the Bible when you're writing about an athlete who refuses to stop quoting the Bible.

Viewers who used an Internet search engine could find the full scriptural reference. Those who relied on news reports, however, tended to find language scrubbed clean of the fervent, conservative and, for many, offensive faith that shapes the lives of Tebow and his missionary parents and siblings.

Bob and Pam Tebow already consider his life a gift from God. During that pregnancy, his mother slipped into a coma after contracting amoebic dysentery. Doctors in the Philippines, where the Tebows are evangelical missionaries, feared that the strong medications she received had damaged her unborn child. Doctors advised an abortion. She refused, the family prayed and Tim Tebow survived.

Thus, Bob Tebow told Sports Illustrated, "I asked God for a preacher, and he gave me a quarterback."

The son has done his share of preaching and missionary work, both overseas and in U.S. prisons. Meanwhile, he has refused to retreat during the many media marathons he endures as a superstar. This is, after all, the guy who seized the podium when he won the Heisman Trophy and, after taking some nervous gulps, immediately gave thanks to "my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave me the ability to play football." In his rush, he said almost exactly the same thing moments later. The news reports that followed steered clear of these references.

While Tebow has been outspoken about his beliefs, he has avoided making openly evangelistic remarks while in the hot spotlight at a secular university in a highly diverse state. The closest he has come to giving an altar call was when he put John 3:16 under his eyes during the 2009 BCS championship game.

For those who have never seen Billy Graham in action, that verse proclaims: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."

But that was a mere tremor compared with the quake that followed Tebow's candid response when asked during a press conference: "Are you saving yourself for marriage?"

Laughing, he said, "Yes, I am."

While another reporter struggled to ask a question, Tebow continued. "I think ya'll are stunned right now. Ya'll can't even ask a question. Look at this. The first time ever. Wow. I was ready for the question. I don't think ya'll were, though."

Thus, a simple Google search for "Tebow, virgin" yields 70,000-plus hits. Journalists and commentators can't seem to decide if they were more offended by the question or by Tebow's unapologetic answer. Was this a victory for the religious right or for crass, "gotcha" journalism?

The columnist who pushed that button has refused to apologize, noting that Tebow considered it a logical question in light of his highly public faith.

"Tebow demonstrated that he lives his life according to his own religious principles," noted Clay Travis of the Fanhouse.com website.

"I asked because I believe it's newsworthy and because, believe it or not, I thought Tim Tebow would answer the question by saying: 'Yes, I am.' ... Why did I believe this? Because Tebow lives his faith. And I believe that living his faith is not artificial, he's not pretending to be something he's not."

Religion, relief and risk in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON -- There are rumblings from western Afghanistan that the office for the "Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice" is back.

That may not sound bad. But this is the network that enforced the Taliban's codes for clothing, grooming, family life, prayers and myriad other details of daily life. It used beatings, torture, imprisonment, discrimination and other forms of terror.

On the evening news, the Taliban is defeated and on the run. But the reality on the ground may be different. If the office for the "Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice" is alive, the Taliban's heart is still beating.

"Significant numbers of former Taliban officials or supporters appear to be in the process of attaching themselves to the new power structures," according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. "Many elements of the victorious anti-Taliban forces also have past records of human rights abuse, including religious intolerance and restrictions of the rights of women."

Far from the diplomats and satellite dishes in Kabul, the Taliban's version of Sunni Islamic law may rule -- with summary public executions for murder, amputations for theft and stoning and lashing for adultery.

Nobody really knows. The commission thinks somebody needs to find out.

In a report this week to the White House and Congress, it urged the expansion of an international security presence beyond Kabul, with more attention focused on the actions of local commanders and tribal leaders. It is crucial -- since religion is at the root of this crisis -- that someone promptly be assigned to the Kabul embassy to defend religious liberty.

"If the United States government is not prepared to send such a person, our commission is," said commissioner Felice Gaer, of the American Jewish Committee.

Gaer repeated this pledge a half dozen times during one press briefing. The commission will decide on a course of action by the end of June.

It may seem strange to place such an emphasis on religious liberty for minorities in a land in which Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jews and Christians may number only in the hundreds. But there also have been atrocities committed by the Sunni Muslims -- 85 percent of the population -- against Shiite Muslims.

"Some people have the view, 'Well, what do you need religious freedom for?' because this is a country that is 99 percent Muslim," said commissioner Nina Shea of Freedom House. "There are many difficulties with that. Under the Taliban we saw how a harsh interpretation of Islam was imposed on everyone, whether they wanted that interpretation or not. This is a concern for the individual rights of Muslims as well as for minority religious groups within Afghanistan."

The commission report's bottom line is that "a future Afghanistan that respects human rights, including freedom of thought, conscience and religion," is much less likely to be a staging ground for terrorism. But there is another reason to stress issues of faith and tolerance -- it is crucial that religious charities and relief groups are able to safely resume their work.

But who decides who is a relief worker and who gets jailed as a missionary? Ask Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer if this question matters in Afghanistan.

The U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion in teaching, practice, worship and observance."

This implies that all kinds of people -- from atheists to evangelists -- can speak their minds and strive to change other people's minds. But Afghanistan remains a land in which converting to another faith can be fatal. Inviting someone to convert to another faith can be fatal, as well.

The goal right now, said Shea, is to focus on issues of security and the rule of law.

"This report," she said, "is not about making Afghanistan safe for Christian missionaries to go in and convert the country. ... We are talking about basic rights of religious freedom that have been violated, probably more severely in Afghanistan than in almost any other country in the world in recent years."