I heard a theory on Southern Baptist life recently. Maybe you’ve heard it before and it just hasn’t made it’s way up to Sioux City. I’m waiting on the delivery of a new bed that is long overdue because the delivery company says that our city of over 100,000 on a US Interstate is in a “remote area.” Maybe this theory has been around and like my bed just hasn’t made its way up to the remote frozen tundra of Iowa.
As I have often said, I’ve been attending a Southern Baptist church since 9 months before I was born. I’ve never been a member of or regularly attended any church that wasn’t a Southern Baptist church. I attended a Southern Baptist college (that has since not only separated from us but is telling people it never was Southern Baptist – it’s a lie, of course). I attended Dallas for a couple of years then finished up at SWBTS in 1981. If you know anything about SBC history that was a fairly interesting time in our denomination’s life. My first convention was the fateful gathering in Houston in 1979 during which Adrian Rogers was elected and the “Conservative Resurgence” (aka Fundamentalist Takeover) was born.
I was a foot soldier in those wars, attending many of the decisive conventions in the 80s right up until the decisive election in New Orleans when Morris Chapman won a nearly 60 percent majority in an election many thought might be tough to win. My dad had stepped out when they announced the results and I went and found him in the bookstore. I told him that Chapman won with just about 59% of the vote and he did not believe me. That was when the CBF broke off to form their shadow denomination.
We’ve been arguing about what happened ever since. You can find any number of people with any number of interpretations of the life of the Southern Baptist Convention since the mid-1970s.
- According to the passionate moderates, the fundamentalists created a problem that did not exist, manufacturing the specter of liberalism so that they could take over the SBC in their never-ending lust for power and control.
- A few “tweeners”, theologically conservative folks who did not side with the CR group, saw a missional tragedy taking place. “Bold Mission Thrust” was set to win the world to Christ before the year 2000, aligning the planets and bringing balance to the force. For you younger folks, BMT was a much earlier version of the GCR with a heavier emphasis on numerical targets. We were marching to Zion under the Bold Mission Thrust banner when we were interrupted by the power-mad fundamentalist megachurch pastors who took over everything. The division they caused stopped BMT and sent us into the statistical funk we are in today.
- There are plenty of true-blue, died-in-the-wool, conservative warriors out there who believe that our denomination was headed over the precipice of liberalism, following the pattern of compromise set by mainline denominations. God stirred in the hearts of Dr. Patterson and Judge Pressler as they met in New Orleans to share a plate of beignets at Café du Monde and a plan was born. God turned us around and we were set back on a path of truth and fidelity to God’s word. Hallelujah!
- My view is a little more nuanced. When I went to college, I experienced liberalism first hand. It was real, it was evil, it was damning and destructive. We had no choice but to stand and be counted – the CR had to happen. On the other hand, and I said this all through the 80s, the conservative leaders and their followers too often adopted a “win at all costs” ethic and used scorched earth tactics. The moderates did too, but since I believed we were doing God’s work I thought we were responsible to act in accord with God’s word. I hold MY side more accountable than I do the other side, not less, and I never justify misdeeds by my side because, “well, they did it too.”
We made two serious errors. First, we painted people who loved God’s word and believed in inerrancy as theologically suspect if they did not identify with us politically. Many of the leaders of the moderate side were disaffected inerrantists, treated as men of evil because they didn’t support the right candidate for president at the convention. Second, when the fight was over, we should have reached out to those men and told them that if they believed the Bible and Baptist doctrine we wanted them in the fold. There were a lot of good men and women who picked the wrong horse in the race but had the right hearts at the root of it all.
A New Interpretation
A friend floated this theory to me a couple of weeks ago in just a sentence or two and it made so much sense to me that I’ve been mulling it over a lot. I’ve not fully developed this at all – this is more of a trial balloon than a finished theory. You good folks can bat it around and let me know why I’m an idiot.
Here’s the theory:
Recent SBC history has been dominated by political trends.
Let me walk you through it.
1. The identification of the SBC with a political party isn’t something new. It’s the fact that it’s the GOP that is strange. The SBC was a branch office of the southern Democratic party for most of its existence. Southern Baptists and Democrats walked in lockstep for decades.
2. In the postwar era, parties began to realign in major ways. The parties of the 60s and not the parties of today. The Democratic party slowly began to make its trek toward become the progressive, liberal, anti-religious party that it is today. The Republican party had been the party of big money, Wall Street, elites, and especially of the North. Abortion became a watershed issue and divided the parties. What many do not realize is that the SBC of the early 70s actually adopted a pro-choice resolution. Along with the growing evidence of theological liberalism, the fact that the SBC’s leaders embraced abortion was troubling to many.
Race played a factor in all this. How much is hard to pin down and I am not going to speculate here. Buy and read Alan Cross’ book.
3. Several things happened – too many to develop fully.
- The nomination of Barry Goldwater – which roiled the Republican establishment and also got a California actor named Ronald Reagan interested in politics.
- The 1973 Roe v. Wade decision which effectively legalized abortion in America.
- In a time of rapid social change, Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority rose to prominence in the late 1970s. At the time there actually was a majority of Americans who believed in certain moral principles that coincided with biblical truth.
- The Reagan candidacy in 1976, which failed against Gerald Ford, the sitting (but unelected) president, energized a conservative movement in America.
- The Reagan revolution of 1980 to 1989 fundamentally changed America for a generation. The concept of the culture war came to the forefront of American life. It was us against them, good against evil conservative against liberal.
4. Is it a simple coincidence that the Conservative Resurgence of the SBC and Reagan Revolution of the USA happened at approximately the same time?
I am not discounting that God was at work. I am grateful that the skubala I was taught in college religion classes is not taught in our seminaries anymore. But could there have been a cultural trend driving things as well? That these two defining moments took place together seems interesting, at least.
5. For most of the last 40 years, the SBC has been strongly identified with the Republican party and conservative American politics, so much so that many see it to be a betrayal of the faith to fail to vote Republican. I know this to be true, as one who made public my refusal to vote Republican in this last election!
6, A growing segment of the church, many of them younger – some reformed, some not – have grown concerned with the SBC’s identification with what they call “American Civil Religion” and with the Republican party. When a GOP candidate was invited to speak at a Pastors’ Conference a couple of years ago there was quite a ruckus raised about it, and much of it was by people who actually supported that candidate.
They are not against the VIEWS Republicans hold on most issues but against the identification of those views with Christianity. I’ve heard Christians assert that anyone who advocated higher taxes was contrary to Christ. I’ve read the Bible and I don’t remember a developed fiscal policy being laid out. One could probably be a Christian and a big government liberal at the same time. I would disagree with you, but do we really want to make conservative fiscal policy a biblical mandate?
And there are some areas where this group diverges with the conservative orthodoxy. Treatment of immigrants and refugees is a notable example. Many believe that the “build the wall and ship them to the border” policy many advocated is absolutely not a biblical mandate and may actually be contrary to scripture. They have challenged some of the views of many conservatives on issues related to race as well.
Fundamentally, though, this group is questioning whether being “culture warriors” is a high calling of the church, how much time and effort the church needs to sink into “making America great again” or “restoring America to its former glory.”
Dr. Russell Moore has become one of the most effective and sometimes strident voices for this segment of SBC life.
The fundamental, hopefully not fatal, flaw of the SBC is that it has tended to be a product of its times, not a prophet to its times. When racism ruled the South, few in the SBC stood against that evil, but instead many SBC preachers dug into the word and found biblical support for this heinous evil. When the Reagan Revolution hit we joined the fray as faithful culture warriors. As that began to lose steam, we started hearing of pastors who are opening the Bible and suddenly finding that thousands of years of interpretation was wrong! Homosexuality is okay after all. Sexual sin isn’t that big a deal. We have always tended to be a denomination that sought the halls of power rather than one that sought to call those halls to repent.
The comments by Jack Graham and Brad Whitt in the WSJ article are instructive. Look at what Brad said. (For the record, I’ve had a limited number of interactions with Dr. Whitt. they have been pleasant and cordial. This is in no way meant as an attack.)
We want to see what he says, and whether he has a seat at the table in Washington. If not, we’ll be wasting a whole lot of time, energy and finances that could be going to the mission field.
Jack Graham said,
He’s going to have no access, basically, to President Trump.
The concern seems to be that the SBC is not going to have power and influence in Washington. How crucial is that?
Our power and effectiveness does not come from our access to the halls of power in Washington, but from the power of the Holy Spirit. The early church had no access to secular power, but walked daily in the fullness of the Spirit and turned the world upside down.
As is usually the case, I am not on either extreme in this issue. There are dangers in the culture warrior mindset but we ought not abandon cultural engagement completely. I was NeverTrump, but some of the rhetoric (by me, by Dr. Moore, by most of us) crossed the line. We weren’t careful to honor one another. Perhaps we fired bazookas instead of rifles. Few of us on any side of this election discussion are going to be proud under the final review of all our words, actions, and attitudes.
I’d simply ask you to chew on this for a while. Again, maybe this is an accepted theory that’s been out there. I’m not claiming originality for all these ideas. But I do think that perhaps politics has a lot more to do with the SBC than we want to admit. We want to make everything about holiness, about theology, about eternal issues. Sometimes, its a little more crass, a little more partisan.
And for the love of God, we need to start being prophetic voices, not pandering to power. Obviously we are going to differ on what that means – we may aim our prophetic voices in different directions. But we’ve got to stop being shaped by our culture and start shaping it according to the character of Christ.