It seems to me that a great many of our conflicts among Southern Baptists at this moment in time come at the juncture of pragmatism, partnership, and politics.
Sometimes we have spiritual convictions that lead us to adopt political goals. I have a spiritual conviction that I should not use coercive force to try to strong-arm anyone into false conversion by persecuting him for his aberrant faith. This spiritual conviction is soundly biblical. Holding that spiritual conviction leads me to adopt a political goal: maintaining First Amendment guarantees of universal religious liberty.
Pursuing political goals often drives us to practicing a little pragmatism. Pragmatism often leads us into strange partnerships. I know that there are enemies of religious liberty in our country. Preponderantly, they are people on the academic left who hold the views expressed by Chai Feldblum. There are enemies of religious liberty in our nation, and they are prepared to wage war against the First Amendment in the courts.
If I want to defend religious liberty against these foes (and I’m sort of assuming that when it comes to Chai Feldblum’s agenda, we’re all pretty much on the same page in this forum), it doesn’t make much sense to say, “If the battle happens on this battlefield over here, I’ll fight against the enemies of religious liberty, but if it happens on that other battlefield over there, I won’t.” No, if you want to defeat an enemy, you have to be ready to fight wherever they bring the war to you.
If Southern Baptists say that we will defend religious liberty in court cases so long as there isn’t a mosque involved, Chai Feldblum and her ilk will simply file all of their cases against mosques. Want everyone to open their ladies rooms to men? Don’t file that zoning case requiring open bathrooms against a Baptist church. No, if you do that, the Christians will fight you in the courts. File it against a mosque. Then the Christians will remain silent, and you’ll get the law changed with a minimum of effort. After you win in court, the law will apply to all of those Christians churches just as much as it applies to a mosque, and you’ll have won the war while the bulk of the forces arrayed to defend religious liberty sat in their tents at camp.
So, if defending religious liberty law means that I inadvertently benefit false religions, I’m prepared to do that. I don’t see that as a partnership with a mosque; I see that as a partnership with likeminded Christians who are trying to defend the law. But I understand that my work to help churches winds up helping mosques, too, and I can see how some people could view that as an unholy alliance.
Sometimes our pragmatic pursuit of political goals (even those rooted in spiritual convictions) can lead us to strange partnerships.
If you think of it, it’s a bit like deciding that you need to vote for a Mormon or a skirt-chasing, LGBT-affirming, New York non-Christian because you want better Supreme Court picks or hope to see some Executive Orders reversed. You have spiritual convictions about abortion or marriage or even religious liberty. These spiritual convictions lead you to adopt political goals. In pursuing those political goals, you find that you can only achieve them if you form some partnerships with people who are not a good match for you spiritually.
In the past two years we’ve had a lot of people on one side deriding the pragmatic choice of religious liberty advocates to defend religious liberty laws when they happen to become vulnerable in cases that happen to involve mosques. In the past two years we’ve had a lot of people on the other side deriding the pragmatic choice of other Christians to form partnerships with Donald Trump or Mitt Romney. In the one case, people have (falsely) alleged that the religious liberty advocates have endorsed Islam or otherwise gone soft on the exclusivity of Christ. In the other case, people have (falsely) alleged that the GOP advocates have endorsed sexual assault or have otherwise gone soft on the difference between Mormons or nominal Christians on the one hand and true Christians on the other hand. If one of these situations is an unequal yoking with unbelievers, the other is. If one of them is merely coincidental co-belligerance and therefore not a violation of 2 Corinthians 6:14, then there’s probably room to seek to understand the other in the same light.
These problems and these accusations are made worse by the fact that sometimes we struggle to think clearly and communicate well when we’re in the middle of verbal wars with one another.
Perhaps there’s a way forward for us along these lines.
Perhaps we could all engage in a little repentance for ways that we’ve refused to grant to others the grace that we’ve sought for ourselves. I’ve expected people to understand my pragmatic actions in defense of religious liberty against threats that I believe stand poised to make life very hard for believers in the United States. If I will have those expectations, I ought to be more understanding of other people’s pragmatic actions as they chose to vote for Donald Trump.
Perhaps we could all extend a little goodwill and benefit of the doubt toward people who actually share both our spiritual convictions and the preponderance of our political goals when they choose different pragmatic methodologies by which to achieve them. Honestly, if we can’t live at peace with people with whom we share so much in common, it speaks poorly of our relationships with Christ.
Perhaps we could try not to be offended personally (or to lob charges of heresy) when people advocate for pragmatic strategies that differ from our own. Why don’t we just make our case and try to let the strength of our positions persuade or fail to persuade? Why don’t we recognize that the brother who is trying to make us all succeed together by a different plan than my favorite plan can be differentiated from the enemy who wishes to conquer us all?
Perhaps we could dial back our tendencies to assign nefarious motives to people who think differently when we advocate for our own pragmatic strategies. After all, none of us like it when others do likewise to us.
Perhaps we could recognize a bit of wisdom, even when it comes from the bizarre source of a deceased former Soviet Premier: “We and you ought not now to pull on the ends of the rope in which you have tied the knot of war, because the more the two of us pull, the tighter that knot will be tied. And a moment may come when that knot will be tied so tight that even he who tied it will not have the strength to untie it.” Of course, Nikita Khrushchev, not President Kennedy, was the one who had tied the knot of war in the rope to begin with (this communique too place during the Cuban Missile Crisis), but his observation about what happens when we pull hard on the rope is nonetheless both picturesque and instructive.
The Southern Baptist cooperative relationship, like any relationship, only functions for as long as the people in the relationship say they’re sorry when they wrong, forgive when they are wronged, and labor to permit both freedom to advocate for our various views and determination to cooperate graciously both when our ideas win the day and when they do not, for so long as we share a common commitment to the biblical convictions that we have articulated in The Baptist Faith and Message and around which we pursue our common Great Commission work.