Columnists group offers camaraderie, bombshells

November 12, 2005|By GREGORY KANE

It all started when Richard Land said he felt that abortion was a greater problem in the country than poverty.

Land is the president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Did his pronouncement come in front of a group of his fellow Southern Baptists? Noooo.

Land - a white, conservative Southern Baptist - made his pronouncement in front of members of the Trotter Group. Named for the early-20th-century black activist William Monroe Trotter, the group has been in existence for 13 years. Black columnists comprise its membership. Only one of them can be described as a conservative, and I'll bet you can guess who that one columnist is.

But when the group meets every fall, I make it a point to go, for a number of reasons. No. 1 is that it doesn't hurt anyone to be exposed to ideas and philosophies opposite his own once in a while. (In the case of the Trotter Group, I'm exposed to over two dozen people with ideas and philosophies counter to my own.)

No. 2 is that I get to rub elbows with some excellent columnists and possibly interview some major news figures. Last year it was John Kenneth Galbraith at Harvard University, when the renowned economist told us that President Bush's administration left him pining for the days of President Reagan. Two years ago members of the group had a White House interview with Condoleezza Rice, who was then national security adviser.

No. 3 is the opportunity to listen to exchanges like the one between Land and members of the Trotter Group.

This one occurred in Nashville, Tenn., on the campus of Vanderbilt University, the Harvard of the South. (Or is Harvard the Vanderbilt of the North?) The setting was a discussion on "Religion in Public Life." Forrest Harris, the president of American Baptist College and the director of the Kelly Miller Smith Institute on Black Churches at Vanderbilt, joined Land as one of the presenters. Columnist Betty Baye of the Louisville Courier-Journal was the moderator.

Derrick Span, national president of the Community Action Partnership, an anti-poverty group, joined the duo based on his experience in the ministry.

The discussion on religion in public life quickly became a firefight in the culture wars. There was Land of the Southern Baptists, many of whom are conservative on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage and who have voted in numbers significant enough to elect George W. Bush to the presidency twice.

And then there were the Trotter Group members, most of them liberals who support either Democrats or Democratic policies. This was a "you-had-to-be-there" moment if ever there was one.

Land dropped his "abortion is a greater problem than poverty" bomb about midway through the session, after both Harris and Span said that poverty was the greatest crisis facing America.

Wendi C. Thomas, a metro columnist with the Memphis Commercial Appeal, asked Land to clarify his comment. Did he really say, Thomas wanted to know, that he considered abortion a greater problem than poverty?

Land replied that indeed he had. Thomas was clearly miffed. How, she asked, could Land sit there with a straight face and say such a thing?

Land's rejoinder was that he and Thomas apparently disagreed, which could go down as one of the major understatements of this decade. Land never said poverty wasn't a problem. But on his side of the culture war, a baby who's born into poverty has at least a chance of getting out of poverty. Unborn children sucked down the tube have no chance at anything.

USA Today columnist DeWayne Wickham, no doubt trying to ferret out any hint of hypocrisy, inconsistency or double standards in Land's position (and Wickham is one of the best at ferreting out hypocrisy, inconsistency and double standards) followed Thomas' comments with a question.

"What is your position on infant mortality and the death penalty?" Wickham asked Land.

The staunch Southern Baptist said he was for relieving poverty to lower the infant mortality rate and for the death penalty, provided it was administered fairly. Land then said he felt there were major problems with administering the death penalty fairly, given racial and class disparities.

What inspired the debate about abortion - which some consider intentional, state-sanctioned infant mortality - vis-a-vis poverty was the presence of Span, who was the presenter in an earlier discussion about poverty and Hurricane Katrina. Span said it was the government's duty to end poverty and that his organization has proposed federal legislation to that effect.

Trotter Group members were apparently still "feeling" Span, as the current slang goes, when Land came along and doused freezing water on the embers of their burning anti-poverty ardor by bringing up the abortion thing. But why the shock that a conservative Southern Baptist would consider abortion a greater problem than poverty?

"They knew the guy was no Ted Kennedy when he got up there," I mentioned to Tonyaa Weathersbee, as liberal as they come but still my best buddy in the journalism profession. Weathersbee is a columnist with The Florida Times-Union.

Nothing was resolved in this exchange, not that it could be. Abortion rights stem from privacy rights, as those who support abortion rights know. Those rights are based on the premise that government should butt out of our business.

But one of the battles in the culture war is over the proper role of government in the lives of citizens. And if government is required to lift poor folks out of poverty, just how much can it stay out of the business of any of us?

greg.kane@baltsun.com

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