In the aftermath of our Annual Meeting and the decisive victories on so many issues facing our Convention, I heard more than one person lament to me that the SBC has gone liberal. I thought about that statement and wanted to offer my thoughts to the contrary. I do so in the hope that these brothers and sisters will join me in the hope for a bright future for our Convention and a change in their thinking about the obvious shift in our approach to politics and what that really means for the SBC.
The SBC has not gone liberal. Yes, our approach to politics and to political engagement has changed and is changing, but that is not akin to abandoning conservatism in favor of liberalism. Rather, the SBC is coming to a more biblical approach to engaging our society and government. Much of this change has come, admittedly, as the Convention has become more racially, ethnically and generationally diverse. As we have strived for brothers and sisters from such different backgrounds and experiences to be in unity around the gospel, we are discovering some things about politics and our approach to it:
- You can agree on theology and mission but disagree on which political issues are important or most important.
- You can agree on the importance of addressing a political issue but disagree on political strategy to address the issue.
- You can so often side with a political party that you default to a position where that party is always right and thus cease to biblically evaluate those policies.
- You can so desire your candidate to succeed that you no longer hold leaders accountable for their character or speak prophetically to denounce ungodly rhetoric and policy.
- Brothers and sisters of good conscience can be unified on theology and mission and disagree on politics.
The SBC has not gone liberal, but we are loosening our affiliation to one political party and view. That does not mean we have embraced the other. We have not softened our stands on the key moral issues historically important to Republicans such as abortion, marriage, and family. What we HAVE done is affirmed that brothers and sisters may agree on theology and mission and disagree on politics. That we can agree on what issues are important and disagree on how to address them. That we can hold different opinions on which issues are most important.
Further, as participation in the life of the Convention has become younger and more diverse, and as we loosen our affiliation with one party, our list of shared values has expanded. In addition to caring about abortion and marriage, we now include biblical values that were once ignored or held more loosely. Our shared hierarchy of values is no longer monolithic. No longer do all Southern Baptists view abortion as the single most important issue and our collective view of how to address issues is now more varied.
In recent years, what we have heard out of Baptist leaders has challenged our thinking, asked us to choose Christian unity over culture, confronted our prejudices, upset the status quo, and called us to evaluate the character of our leaders even when those leaders are on “our side.” We have increased the volume on our concern for a just society for people of color, for a godly view toward immigrants, on the protection of the most vulnerable in society, and in speaking truth to power even when that power is Republican or Christian.
A decade ago, Richard Land challenged the Convention to “vote values.” That hasn’t changed. What HAS changed is that our constituency no longer is monolithic in regard to which values are most important or how government should address those values. Thus, Baptists of good conscience can disagree on the best political strategies to address those issues. Baptists of good conscience may disagree on which candidate or which party most aligns with Christian values.
The SBC has not gone liberal. The binary hardline that one must be either “conservative” or “liberal/progressive” is purely a political one. I contend that if your interpretation of the shift on issues in the SBC is a shift to liberalism, then you have too closely married your religion with your politics. You likely see conservative politics as closely parallel to conservative, biblical theology. I think that’s a mistake. I vote values, and yet neither party’s platform, strategies, and actions are completely consistent with the Christian worldview. While my political philosophy is seen as conservative on many issues, it may be seen as progressive in others. That depends on who is doing the observing and where their political affiliations and commitments lie.
I would add that too often groups think politically first and let their political views shape their religious ones instead of vice versa. This is evident when the Republican political platform and policies are accepted without critique from believers. The same is true, of course, of Democrats as well. A thoroughly Christian worldview will not be able to fully align with either party without some compromise.
Thus, the conservative/progressive binary is not suitable to a thoroughly Christian stance on the issues that face us today. While one word or the other may be a helpful label in some contexts, these labels really are unhelpful if we want to develop a thoroughly biblical and Baptist worldview. The truth is that there are some things in our society and some values that we hold that ought to be conserved. Likewise, our society contains some things in which we need to make progress and some values that ought to be changed. And, for that matter, there are some political philosophies and principles that are amoral and that Christians of good conscience can disagree.
To the extent that we closely affiliate with one or another political party and philosophy, we inhibit our ability to speak biblically and prophetically to our society and its leaders. Especially when our priority becomes to preserve power and ability to achieve a political agenda rather than to speak biblically to the policies, rhetoric, and character of our leaders.
The SBC has not gone liberal. The shift that has occurred in the SBC is in some ways generational, in some ways cultural, but I hope is also biblical. In a young and diverse SBC, a strong tie to one political party has given way to an independence from political affiliation. This liberation allows the Convention and its entities to speak biblically to issues important to both sides of the aisle, to evaluate and challenge policy leaders to think and act biblically and to confront sin without regard to loss of political influence or insider status.
The SBC has not gone liberal. But what is perhaps the key issue that has some of our brothers feeling like they have lost their Convention, and for this I have no solution, is that we have changed our fundamental strategy of political engagement. For the past generation, Southern Baptists have sought to change the culture through political victory. To fight abortion by electing presidents and senators that would give us conservative judges. To fight for religious liberty by electing leaders and passing laws. This approach to politics has indeed been largely lost in SBC life.
So those that feel a loss at the direction of our Convention HAVE lost something. But I would hope that my brothers would come to see that what is lost is far less important and valuable than what has been gained. Yes, we have lost close affiliation to political party. Yes, we have lost the monolithic culture in which most all of our churches look and work and serve and are the same. Yes, we have lost some of our heroes as a new generation assumes the mantle of leadership. Yes, we have lost the sense that everyone in the room looks and thinks and worships and votes like me. Yes, we have expanded what it means to cooperate as Southern Baptists. But I hope my brothers would evaluate that none of these things we have lost is of spiritual or eternal significance.
It is healthy for our Convention to include godly leaders who disagree on politics. Such diversity forces us to speak to ALL issues and not only those that are most important to our group. Because now our group is now multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, and multi-generational we have the opportunity to speak to and learn from one another and are in a better position to discern and evaluate which of our values are biblical and which have been more strongly influenced by our cultural experience. Further, Freedom from political affiliation allows us to speak prophetically to power both commending them when they do well, challenging them when they are making key decisions, and speaking out against sin and injustice.
Even more, what we have gained is the opportunity to partner together united around a commonality that is more significant than politics and more grand than a shared ethnicity and culture but on the gospel of the Lord Jesus and his mission to make disciples around the world. What we have gained is the ability to speak to a culture with biblical clarity on not just some issues but on all of those that are important to Christians. What we are gaining is a foretaste of the biblical vision of Rev 7:9 and an outworking of the call to be one people of God.
No, the SBC has not gone liberal. But I am glad that we are moving away from a close alliance with a political party. I am thankful for the increased diversity in Baptist life and am hopeful for an increased diversity in its leadership. Such diversity will not lead us into liberalism, but into a day when we can learn from one another and sharpen one another so that our worldview is not political, but is biblical, and gospel-centered, and marked by the one-anotherness of being one people of God.