Squashing Dissent

November 08, 2007

Yesterday, the trustees of the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention voted to censure one of their fellow trustees. This action taken against Wade Burleson is the latest in a long conflict between him and some of the other trustees. Burleson has been blogging about the IMB and policies he disagrees with and as a result some of the other trustees have been trying to silence and remove him for the past two years. Yesterday's vote means that for the next four meetings he will not be allowed to vote or speak in meetings and will not have travel reimbursed.

Burleson began blogging about policies he disagreed with (that were Landmarkist in nature and limited who could serve as missionary). Since he serves the people of the churches, it seemed reasonable to communicate with them. Last year, the trustees passed new rules clearly aimed at Burleson that declared that trustees were only allowed to speak positively about trustee decisions even if they had disagreed with them. These rules attempted to silence all dissent by telling trustees to either be quiet or lie about their beliefs. It is those new policies that have been invoked to censure Burleson.

This brazen effort to squash dissent is a dangerous trend developing in Baptist life. Baptists used to be known for fighting for the rights of everyone to share their opinions no matter how much we may disagree with them. Our spiritual ancestors were imprisoned, tortured, and killed for daring to offer principled dissent. And Baptists have historically been democratic in nature, which can only exist if people have the right to speak their opinions publicly. The IMB policies and censure clearly fly in the face of that rich heritage.

I have written about the importance of democratic freedoms--such as the right to speak--in a couple of columns. In a November 2004 column for the Baptist General Convention of Missouri, I used the work of Communication scholar Karl Wallace on the four values that are essential for democracy. Those are: individual worth, equality of opportunity, freedom, and availability of knowledge. Based on these standards, the IMB trustees are failing to uphold basic democratic rights. In another column for Ethics Daily in January of 2006 (right after the first attempt to remove Burleson), I discussed how the attempts to stop Burleson and other bloggers were not only against the democratic ideals of Baptists but would likely not be successful. As Dan Rather and others have learned, power no longer rests in the hands of a privileged few. The people have a voice and will use it.