April 18, 2016

The ‘Bigger Problems’ of Georgia’s Governor Nathan Deal

The governor of my home state of Georgia, Nathan Deal, has been soundly, and frequently, taken to task for his recent “Craven Capitulation” on religious liberty. I don’t wish to rehash the merits of the very weak bill Deal rejected (it only protected churches, religious schools, and “integrated auxiliaries”), nor do I wish to highlight again the rampant ignorance and hypocrisy of those who lobbied Deal to veto religious liberty in Georgia. What I would like to do here is give some explanation as to why I believe Deal caved on the defining moral issue of his governorship.

Chelsen Vicari at The Institute of Religion and Democracy hinted at the problem when she wrote of Governor Deal’s veto, “When corporate bullies dangling dollar bills is enough to cause a Baptist governor to veto a bill protecting freedom of conscience and speech, a bigger problem exits.”

Vicari goes on to conclude, “Gov. Nathan Deal’s veto of Georgia’s religious freedom bill represents a wider movement among America’s Christians to compromise Scripture and morality for the sake of votes and popularity. Unfortunately, many Evangelicals, Mainline Protestants, and Catholics are bowing down at altars of sexual liberation and political correctness, erected by cultural Leftists.”

The “wider movement” Vacari references is especially prevalent in the Catholic Church and Mainline Protestantism. This eagerness to compromise Scripture and morality is due to the widespread embrace of what Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, calls “near Christianity.” It seems that Mr. Deal has been steeped in such wishy-washy theology for decades.

A day after Deal’s veto, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Albert Mohler described in a podcast Deal’s rationale for vetoing the religious liberty bill as a “moral and political evasion.” Dr. Mohler also pointed out that Deal is acting as an agent in the liberal “theological agenda” that is helping to progress the homosexual agenda.

Given the theology of Governor Deal’s church, this should come as little surprise. As Dr. Mohler also noted, Governor Deal is a member of The First Baptist Church of Gainesville, Georgia. Since the early 1990s, First Baptist of Gainesville has been affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF), a more liberal association of Baptist churches than is the Southern Baptist Convention.

On homosexuality, CBF declares, “CBF does not issue ‘official’ positions on homosexuality or other social issues because it violates the Fellowship’s mission as a network of individuals and churches. CBF values and respects the autonomy of each individual and local church to evaluate and make their own decision regarding social issues like homosexuality.” In other words, CBF chooses to ignore Scripture and remain silent on one of the most pressing moral (not merely “social”) issues of our time.

After the infamous Obergefell ruling last year in which the U.S. Supreme Court abandoned the eternal truth on marriage, the pastor of First Baptist of Gainesville, Bill Coates wrote:

“People of deep faith and convictions exist on both sides of the LGBT and gay marriage question. Ultimately, it comes down to how an individual interprets Scripture and how churches interpret Scripture. If read with strict literalism, one can always point to passages that appear to condemn many kinds of behavior…Reading the Bible literally can lead us to the embracing of attitudes that in fact move us from Christlikeness.”

Of course, when the Bible speaks literally, as it does on homosexuality, we are to take it literally. Dr. Coates, who has pastored First Baptist for the last 18 years, went on to write:

“Each church will have to decide how to walk through this marriage equality debate. I think we should respect those who choose to allow their ministers not to perform same-sex weddings out of their own deep convictions, and I think we should respect churches that choose to allow their ministers that right, for they make their choice out of deep convictions, too…I say this: I do not always know what the truth is, but I can always tell what love is. I believe love is the greatest of all, and to do the loving thing will always be the right thing. Most congregations will eventually find their way there.”

Dr. Mohler concluded that Coates could only have meant “that most congregations will eventually get to an affirmation of same-sex marriage in one way or another.”

Jim Galloway, a long-time political reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC), recently reported on the “Baptist-on-Baptist fight” that resulted from Georgia’s religious liberty debate. Galloway asked Dr. Coates “whether the governor’s veto reflected the values of the First Baptist Church of Gainesville.”

Coates replied, “My perception is that the great majority of our congregants are very supportive of Governor Deal’s veto of this bill — primarily for two reasons. First, we hold to the strong historical Baptist principle of separation of church and state.”

I suppose the only thing surprising here is that it took Dr. Coates this long to play the “separation of church and state” card. How tragically ironic that the pastor of a Baptist church in Georgia would resort to using eight words of Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists in 1801 in order to justify denying his fellow pastors protection of their religious liberties.

Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists was a reply to a letter the Baptists wrote on October 7, 1801, congratulating him on his election as U.S. President. Along with their congratulations, the Danbury Baptists expressed grave concern over the First Amendment’s guarantee of the “free exercise of religion.” These Baptists felt that inclusion of such in the U.S. Constitution implied that the right of religious freedom was government-given and not God-given.

Hence, they wrote, “Our sentiments are uniformly on the side of religious liberty: that religion is at all times and places a matter between God and individuals, that no man ought to suffer in name, person, or effects on account of his religious opinions, [and] that the legitimate power of civil government extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbor. But sir, our constitution of government is not specific… [T]herefore what religious privileges we enjoy (as a minor part of the State) we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights.” (Emphasis mine.)

Oh the irony of ironies! The Danbury Baptists, it turns out, wrote Jefferson in the name of “religious liberty!” Does it sound as if these Baptists would support the government forcing individual Christians, or Christian-owned businesses, or Christian-led institutions to accommodate the homosexual agenda?

And neither would Thomas Jefferson. Each of the original 13 colonies treated homosexuality as a serious criminal offense. Jefferson himself authored such a law for the state of Virginia, prescribing that the punishment for sodomy was to be castration. Why have modern courts ignored this?

Further demonstrating his lack of knowledge of the truth, three years ago, the Bill Coates-led First Baptist of Gainesville, along with three other liberal-leaning denominations in Gainesville, GA, sponsored the appearance of the (late) infamous heretic Marcus Borg at a two-day lecture series on the campus of a Gainesville university. Borg was a fellow of the Jesus Seminar and a major figure in the heretical “historical Jesus” movement.

According to apologist Greg Koukl, the so-called “scholars” of the Jesus Seminar “have rejected as myth the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, the virgin birth, all Gospel miracles, and a full 82% of the teachings normally attributed to Jesus — all dismissed as legendary accretions with no historical foundation. For example, only two words of the Lord’s Prayer survive as authentic: ‘Our Father.’” In other words, they are “Christians” who reject virtually every tenet of Christianity, and Nathan Deal’s pastor saw fit to promote such false teaching.

At the time, in the local paper, Dr. Coates flatteringly described Borg as someone who “speaks of an emerging paradigm to see faith and practice faith in an age of science and technology.” Coates added that, “So many people don’t believe today because they don’t believe the basic doctrines or have trouble understanding the stories of the Bible. For people like that, Borg has a new approach, a new lens through which they can see those stories.” Borg’s “new lens” gives new meaning to the Apostle Paul’s “dim mirror.”

Perhaps the most troubling news concerning Governor Deal’s church — where he has served as both a deacon and a Sunday school teacher — was revealed recently in a 2,800-word exposé by the AJC. The First Baptist Church of Gainesville, GA, along with a former pastor (who served just prior to Dr. Coates), are being sued for their supposed role in hiding the sexual abuse committed by a former deacon, Fleming Weaver. While a Scout Leader for a Boy Scout troop sponsored by First Baptist of Gainesville, Weaver sexually abused multiple young boys.

In 1981, when some of his victims brought information to First Baptist, Weaver admitted to church leadership that he had indeed sexually abused several young boys. Reportedly, the church chose not to reveal Weaver’s abuse to the Boy Scouts or to law enforcement and allowed Weaver to remain in church leadership. The alleged victim bringing the lawsuit accuses Weaver of raping him in 1985, when the boy was 15. According to the AJC, Dr. Coates “acknowledged he had heard the rumors about Weaver, ‘but there was never any kind of proof.’” Weaver, now 82 years old, remained a deacon at First Baptist until just a few weeks ago when this story hit the news.

It should come as little surprise that a church that would allow an abuser of children to avoid the law and remain in leadership, that would sponsor the speeches of a heretic, that shrugged its shoulders at the legal redefinition of the oldest institution in the history of humanity, and that cites Jefferson’s wall in order to justify not protecting the religious liberties of pastors, would also give us a Governor who would “compromise Scripture and morality for the sake of votes and popularity.”

Sadly, as is so often the case with those who are steeped in “near Christianity,” as another Baptist pastor in Gainesville, Dr. Tom Smiley, put it, with his veto of religious liberty, Governor Deal “missed his moment.” (In other words, he missed his “Esther moment.”) However, if the Georgia legislature has its way — like Peter, Jonah, Samson, King David, and other trophies of God’s grace and mercy — Governor Deal may get another shot at doing what is right.

Trevor and his wife Michelle are the authors of “Debt Free Living in a Debt Filled World.” Contact him at [email protected]

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