The president of the Southern Baptist Convention has set off a small religious war by publicly stating that God does not hear Jewish prayers.
At a national conference on evangelical Christianity and politics in Dallas last month, Dr. Bailey Smith of Del City, Okla., said: "It's interesting to me at great political battles how you have a Protestant to pray and a Catholic to pray and then you have a Jew to pray.With all due respect to those dear people, my friends, God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew . . . . No one can pray unless he prays through the name of Jesus Christ."
Smith's remarks were missed by reporters who were concentrating on Ronald Reagan's appearance before the evangelical gathering. But a Jewish leader in Texas who was monitoring the conference tape-recorder Smith's remarks and circulated the transcript to Jewish organizations around the country.
Baptists as well as Jews were shocked by the statement.
Glenn Igleheart, director of interfaith witness at the Southern Baptist Convention, charged that "instead of furthering understanding, [smith's remark] actually impedes it."
Igleheart sent Smith a letter expressing dismay that the Oklahoma pastor would make such a statement in his capacity as president of the nation's largest Protestant body.
William Pharr, regional director of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, called Smith's statement "vicious anti-Semitism, motivated by a gross and divisive religious prejudice which has no place in the political life of the United States."
Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, interreligious affairs director of the American Jewish Committee and a leader in the increasingly amicabel dialogue between Jews and Southern Baptists over the past decade, called Smith's views "archaic and primitive" and "a wart on the Baptist tradition" of religious freedom and religious pluralism.
Smith's remarks, Tanenbaum added, "will do more to create a negative image of a Southern Baptist pastor from rural regions than they will to damage the Jewish people."
Tanenbaum, who almost never has a harsh word for a religious leader, accused Smith of "invincible ignorance" and insisted that the Oklahoma preacher does not speak for the 13.4 million Southern Baptists. "The Baptist Church does not believe in the infallibility of the president of the Southern Baptist Convention" Tanenbaum said.
Letters from Southern Baptists that have been pouring into the offices of Jewish organizations seem to confirm that opinion.
"Smith . . . cannot speak with any authority for his fellow Baptists and . . . he does not, in my opinion, represent the ideas and attitudes of thoughtful Christians," wrote Dr. J. William Angell, professor of religion at Wake Forest University. In a letter of apology to Rabbi Solomon S. Bernards of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, Angell called Smith "one of a group of Southern Baptist power politicianas who, unfortunately, have maneuvered themselves into places of leadership."
Smith was elected president last June at the denomination's annual convention in St. Louis. He is the second ultraconservative to be chosen president of the denomination in as many years.
Like a number of other churches, the Southern Baptist Convention has been racked in recent years by divisions between theological moderates and fundamentalists. The fundamentalists, currently in the saddle of the denomination, tend to make a literal interpretation of the scriptures the litmus test of Christian faithfulness.
Traditionally, Baptists have rejected anything that smacks of a creed, including the imposition of any single interpretation of the Bible.
Within the past two decades, the Southern Baptists have increasingly been cooperating with other religious groups and carrying on dialogues with them. Smith's statement is seen by many Baptists as a threat to this trend.
Calling Smith's statement "Pharisaical," Jack Altman, pastor of the Second Baptist Church in Cumberland, Md., wrote Smith that if he "had ever sat at the table with" Jewish friends and heard them offer the millenia-old prayers and blessings, "you would never be able to say: 'My friend God Almighty did not hear that Jew's prayer because he has not accepted Jesus Christ as the true messiah.'"
The Rev. Alfred M. Johnson Jr. of the First Baptist Church of Cary, N.C., called Smith's statement "ignorance and flamboyant shallow-brained moronism" and "pure and simple heresy." In a letter to Smith he demanded that the Baptist president issue an apology to "all believers in Judaism."
The Rev. Bob Wallace, a Baptist from Maysville, N.C., observed that "To say that God does not hear the prayers of a Jew is more than infringing upon the sovereignty and prerogatives of God, it is self-idolatry -- playing God.
Smith, however, is standing by his original statement and has said he will not modify his beliefs to please his critics. "We make a mistake when we try so hard at public relations that we lose our mission's thrust," he said.