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

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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.