A well-known Oklahoma Baptist pastor announced Feb. 1 that he will challenge a 28-year incumbent to represent the state’s Third Congressional District.
If elected, Wade Burleson would be the second Oklahoma Baptist pastor currently serving in Congress; Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford also is a Baptist pastor. While not unprecedented, it remains rare in the modern era for Baptist pastors to serve in Congress.
Burleson, who recently retired from the pastorate of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Enid, Okla., is a colorful character who has made waves with both the right and the left in Baptist life. He was a pioneer in the art of blogging among Baptist pastors nationwide and gained a loyal following as he challenged corruption and coercion within the Southern Baptist Convention.
He briefly served as an elected trustee of the SBC’s International Mission Board but resigned after serving two years of a potential eight-year term when he ran headlong into a denominational power structure that, at the time, was loyal to Paige Patterson.
When Patterson finally was fired by trustees of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in 2018, Burleson wrote on his blog: “I started this blog in 2005 when I saw for myself how Patterson lackeys fawned over him and did his bidding in banishing opposition from positions of leadership. For nearly 15 years I’ve been writing of the travesty of what our Convention has become. Finally, people have listened.”
Burleson’s own story is told in his 2009 book, Hardball Religion: Feeling the Fury of Fundamentalism.
By Baptist standards, Burleson is no theological or social liberal. But neither does he fit the off-the-shelf profile of a modern-day SBC conservative. He has advocated fiercely for local church autonomy, even writing a 2009 opinion column for BNG that affirmed the right of churches to call women as pastors — a thought that is anathema to the SBC powers that be.
His new political campaign appears to take a similar conservative yet independent streak.
He is one of two announced Republican primary challengers to Rep. Frank Lucas, who hasn’t faced a competitive race in two decades. Oklahoma is a decidedly Republican-dominated state, and the Third Congressional District recently was redrawn to ensure Republicans retain control of it.
The Third is the largest congressional district in the state, covering an area of 34,088.49 square miles, 48% the state’s land mass. It stretches from the panhandle to the southwestern most tip of the state and then across part of Oklahoma City and to the edge of Tulsa in the northeastern part of the state.
In an interview with The Oklahoman newspaper, Burleson said: “I like Frank. He’s a good man. But after 28 years, you’re too tied to lobbyists, you’re too addicted to being in Washington. There’s too much money, too much power, and it’s time for a change.”
Burleson, following the same libertarian bent he demonstrated in SBC life, has been an outspoken opponent of vaccine and mask mandates during the pandemic. He told the Oklahoman one factor in his decision to run was Lucas’ vote in November for a House bill aimed at improving databases related to vaccinations.
That bill, he said, would allow “a consolidated immunization history of a patient to determine appropriate vaccinations” and is therefore intrusive and paves the way for government tracking of Americans.
In a campaign announcement, Burleson declared: “The time of silent acquiescence by Oklahoma politicians to the destructive, unconstitutional liberal policies of Washington are over. We cannot afford to send a congressman who says one thing while campaigning and another when voting. I will be full of grace and fearless in truth. I’m running to represent all Oklahomans as a defender of our Constitutional liberties.”
His campaign materials tout him as “a vocal champion for informed consent in medicine, parental choice in education, free and open markets in business, and non-governmental interference in ranching and farming.”
His pledge: “I am not a career politician. But I know the people of western Oklahoma. I am one. We are strong, independent believers in God and the rule of law. Oklahoma doesn’t need Washington. Our nation’s capital needs the values and character of the people of Oklahoma. I’ll make sure they get it.”
Like a good three-point alliterative sermon, his campaign website lists three key areas of emphasis: Protection of life, pursuit of light, and promotion of liberty.
Subpoints under these three categories articulate typical modern-day Republican talking points, including opposition to abortion, support for Second Amendment gun rights as “inviolable,” support for capital punishment as a means of demonstrating the sacredness of life, “election integrity,” freedom of speech, parental rights and the need for “secure borders.”
Burleson, 60, is an Oklahoma native who traces his family roots to before statehood. He attended Baylor University and earned a business degree from East Central University in Ada, Okla. He recently earned a master’s degree in American history from Southern New Hampshire University.
He served two terms as president of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.
Book review: Wade Burleson’s Hardball Religion | Opinion by Benjamin Cole
Does the SBC respect local-church autonomy or not? | Opinion by Wade Burleson
It’s still rare for a Baptist minister to serve in Congress | Analysis by Mark Wingfield