Baptists Bank on Fire and Brimstone

Southern Baptist Logo with  Cross and GlobeThe Southern Baptist Convention is a force to be reckoned with. As the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, with over 45,000 affiliate churches, it have been shaping and channeling conservative Christian sensibilities since the Civil War, when Southern Baptists split from the North so they could advocate on behalf of slave owners. They fought to keep slavery and lost. Then they fought for Jim Crow laws and lost. Then they fought for segregation and lost.  Now, faced with eroding membership, the Southern Baptist leaders are fighting for relevance. Unfortunately, they have committed to a strategy that will make it harder for their members – and for all of us—to move toward a future based in collaboration, compassion, and practical solutions to real-world problems.

With secularism on the rise, entrepreneurial Christian denominations have evolved a variety of survival strategies.  Anglican theologian John Shelby Spong (Why Christianity Must Change or Die) proposes a rigorous rethinking of Christian belief.  Mainline and Unitarian congregations have embraced Michael Dowd’s Evolutionary Christianity, an interplay between Christian worship and scientific wonder. Elsewhere on the spectrum, Joel Olsteen plays down theology, instead offering comforting promises of prosperity to those who pray and give. Willow Creek mega-church in Chicago pioneered sound and light shows and indie rock bands that entice young people by emulating familiar entertainment media. The Catholic bishops are boldly trying to re-create an epoch in which they were ascendant.

Last week the Southern Baptist Convention voted to approve a name change. Congregations will now have the option to call themselves “Great Commission Baptists.” The name change is meant to distance from their past association with racism, but it does much more. To those in the know, it announces that their future will be focused on turf wars – on competing for members and dollars rather than any kind of forward-facing spiritual leadership. To draw an analogy, imagine that Coca Cola decided to distance from their past sales of cocaine drinks by dropping the “Coca” and calling themselves “World Dominance Cola.” Imagine them announcing to the public: Rather than improving our product, we’ve chosen to focus on our marketing department. That’s essentially what the new name means.

The Southern Baptist denomination was formed in 1845 when Baptists split over a question of slaveholders as missionaries.  Freed from the sensibilities of their Northern brethren, the Southern Baptists became strong and vocal advocates for slavery as a Biblical institution.  As one leader, Dr. Richard Furman, wrote to the governor of South Carolina, the right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example.” Over the years, Southern Baptist deacons and pastors moved in and out of Ku Klux Klan leadership positions. In 1956 the minister of the largest Southern Baptist church in the nation testified before the South Carolina legislature, voicing his support for segregation. It wasn’t until 1995 that leaders formally apologized for their defense of slavery and 20th Century opposition to equality for Blacks. As recently as the Trayvon Martin murder, the denomination has struggled with embarrassing racist taint. Last week, along with the name change, the Convention elected a fiery Black preacher as the first African American president in its 167 year history.

In an alternate universe, the Southern Baptist history of endorsing slavery and then Jim Crow laws, so shameful in hindsight, might have led to broad theological growth. For example, it might have softened the authoritarianism that caused ordinary believers to blindly follow whatever their preachers said. It might have called into question the notion of “biblical inerrancy” which gives God’s seal of approval to every form of Iron Age bigotry in the biblical record. It might have led to an increase in denominational humility – the sense that maybe there are things to be learned from other kinds of Christians, the outside world, or the moral trajectory of human history. Alas. It would appear that the lesson learned was a narrow one: Blacks are fully human and they can make loyal church members.  A cynic might suggest that there was no lesson learned:  economics were on the side of slaveholders at the start and are now on the side of putting Blacks at the helm.

Like the Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention almost made a leap that would have brought their teachings into line with the moral demands of the 21st Century. In fact, by the 1970’s it appeared that the Southern Baptists might be ready to move into a position at the vanguard of Christianity. Doors were slowly opening to women even at the flagship seminary in Louisville, and scholarship in fields like archeology, linguistics and the natural sciences was penetrating and changing theology discussions. But then at the national convention in 1979, hard liners seized the reins of power. Theological dissent was purged. Over a several years, women were removed from positions of spiritual leadership. By 1993 an adroit biblical literalist, Albert Mohler, who had been instrumental in the coup, was installed at the helm of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. A 1997 documentary, Battle for the Minds, tells the story of one well-loved but regrettably female theology professor, Molly Marshall, who Mohler forced out.  Under the leadership of Mohler and likeminded theological conservatives, the denomination has pursued the kind of authoritarian Old Time Religion that lead to the 1845 split, with biblically sanctioned sexism and homophobia replacing Civil War era slavery endorsements.

Like the Catholics, the Southern Baptists recently have doubled down on controlling women as it has become clear that they are losing their battle to ostracize gays. Last year, Albert Mohler told Focus on the Family Radio that Christians need to prepare for gay marriage. “I think it’s clear that something like same-sex marriage is going to become normalized, legalized and recognized in the culture. It’s time for Christians to start thinking about how we’re going to deal with that.”  In January, LifeWay Christian Resources, an arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, published a two volume Bible commentary about gender roles. The commentary promotes “complementarianism,” the idea that God made men and women for different purposes. If you couldn’t guess, the purpose of women is homemaking and childbearing. Men are made for marital, social, political, economic and spiritual leadership. Complementarianism is Jim Crow in the gender realm, a desperate last ditch attempt to ensure that straight white males keep dominance over somebody. To date it continues to have broad appeal among Southern Baptist members.

The Southern Baptists are staking their institutional future and finances on the idea that Old Time patriarchal heaven-and-hell religion still has a market and will for some time to come. In the choice of a new name, they have made clear how they intend to compete for mindshare in the coming decades: with better and more aggressive marketing of their traditional theological product. The Great Commission refers to a set of New Testament texts that mandate proselytizing. Quotes vary slightly from author to author, but they are always composed as words spoken by the resurrected Jesus to his disciples. Here are a couple examples:

Matthew: Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 28:19 NIV)

Mark: Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well. (Mark 16:15-18 NIV)

It’s not a given that Bible-centered Christians should make these passages about proselytizing, belief, and baptism the cornerstone of their faith. Some New Testament texts advocate a very different set of priorities. In one place, Jesus says in graphic terms that hell is for those who fail to tend the needy and ill. (Matthew 25:31-46). Elsewhere, he suggests that worldly riches mean a person is living outside God’s will (Mark 10:17-25). When asked which is the greatest of the Hebrew commandments, Jesus says that the Torah and Prophets can be summed up very simply: Love God, and love you neighbor as yourself.  (Matthew 22: 26-40).

Over the centuries many Christians have made these teachings the center of their faith and religious practice. The result is a spiritual life centered on simplicity and service. A Christianity centered on the Great Commission, by contrast has the following defining features.

  1. Every member is a part of the sales force. Great Commission Christianity is first and foremost about recruiting, becausemembership is top priority. The Great Commission brand says that the most important thing churches can do is recruit more converts. Overseas medical services, inner city food banks, even friendship –all of these can be smart marketing, but they should be a means to an end, conversion.
  2. What is sold is a package of exclusive truth claims . – A focus on outreach necessarily goes hand in hand with a certain kind of theology. The recruiting efforts would be pointless if there were many paths to God. The message of the recruiting is that there is only one path to God: being cleansed by the blood of Jesus. Interspiritual or interfaith perspectives are wrong, and adherents need to be wooed from their misguided beliefs to the Righteousness.
  3. The measure of a spiritual person is right belief. In this case right belief means something like: You deserve hell; Jesus died for your sins; accepting him as your savior will get you to heaven.  Buddhists may believe that compassion is the heart of spiritual practices. Modernist Christians may center in on the words of the Great Commandment: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Priorities like these simply don’t work with the Great Commission strategy; they are too inclusive.
  4. Other religions and denominations are competitors, not partners. The Great Commission is a competitive strategy; and in fact successful conversion activities often are described as “winning” souls. Creating heaven here on Earth might require interfaith teamwork. By contrast salvation through right belief is an individual affair, and those who believe they are saved and headed for heaven tend to get grumpy if someone suggests that there is no hell.

After failing on the great moral questions of the 19th and 20th Centuries—full personhood for Blacks and females respectively—the  Great Commission rebranding effort that inadvertently shows the world how little Southern Baptist leaders have learned from two centuries of ethical slumming. Mind you, the Great Commission strategy has been a winner for some mega-churches, and proselytizing is strongly correlated with the growth in minority sects like Scientology and Mormonism. In past centuries religions could capture mindshare through conquest, which is how Christianity spread through Europe and how Islam spread through India. Competitive breeding was baked into both Catholicism and Islam because it offered some additional advantage. But in the last century, the primary mode of competition among religions has been evangelism.  In other words, the Southern Baptists have placed their bets on a strategy with some history of success.

Whether they win or lose from the standpoint of re-filling church pews and bank accounts remains to be seen. What is regrettable, either way, is that by choosing to be competitive they have once again pitted themselves against the moral arc of history. Whether humanity can flourish in the twenty first century will depend largely on whether we can move beyond competition to collaboration. Population growth, resource depletion and weapons technology have carried us to the point that there are fewer and fewer “winnable” competitions. Humanity desperately needs to find common ground in our shared moral core and dreams for our children. Just as they did on the questions of slavery and the full humanity of women, the Southern Baptists have positioned themselves as moral dead weight, which is a loss for us all.

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Subscribe to her articles at Awaypoint.Wordpress.com.

At Salon: Baptists Bank on Fire and Brimstone.

About these ads

About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt and Deas and Other Imaginings. Founder - www.WisdomCommons.org.
Gallery | This entry was posted in Christianity in the Public Square and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Baptists Bank on Fire and Brimstone

  1. The Truth Seeker says:

    If the Protestants and Catholics can do it so can we. Why don’t all non-believers gather behind an organization that can represent them when they need to sorely make a point to the rest of the world. I know there are a number of atheist groups out there, but what that is doing is weakening our overall strength. I think one group that might be able to do that would be the American Humanist Association. A reading of their beliefs seems like most non-believers could accept that. Also the AHA is already a well established organization and has the credentials amongst other groups which recognize their validity. It seems like we are going to gripe, gripe, gripe about the lack of respect which Chrisitans treat us. They’re never going to come running to join our oranization, but if we are strong and unified we can be just as large a combined organization as they have. What do you say? Let’s get organized.

    Like

    • ubi dubium says:

      The Secular Coalition for America may be exactly what you are thinking of. It has 11 member organizations including AHA. It’s looking to expand to have chapters in every state, and the goal is to organize the non-believers so we can have a unified voice in the political system..

      Go to http://www.secular.org and see if that fits what you want.

      Like

    • It’s interesting to think about the many different functions of organized religions, and what it might mean to replicate them without the archaic “morality” and superstition that accompanies almost all organized spiritual practice. Humanists like Greg Epstein seem to be focused on what it means to create spiritual community. I wonder if effective advocacy needs to emerge out of such communities. I think that one thing that makes Catholics and Baptists so powerful in the political space is that they speak with moral authority and the force of conviction. One thing I like about humanism broadly but also about some specific atheists like Sam Harris is that they are asking, “What is our moral core? What are our non-negotiable values?” How can we stand together on that foundation and make our voices heard?

      Like

  2. Wasn’t “make disciples of all nations” addressed just to Jesus’s inner circle? If so, it would be pretty bold for average Christians to imagine themselves so highly placed.

    Like

  3. mikespeir says:

    I have every confidence that these people will eventually arrive at the 20th century. It may take several hundred years, but it’ll happen. They’ll probably see the need to change their name a few more times in the interim, at last dropping the “Baptist” altogether, because nobody will be able to remember what it meant. ;-)

    Like

  4. Mriana says:

    I never could figure why some Xian groups hate so much, that it seems they can’t even love themselves, yet others seem to love, despite what is written in the Bible. The Episcopalians (ie Spong) and alike groups seem to be able to ignore the hateful inhumane teachings, while other groups, such as the Baptists and WBC, cannot. It makes no sense to me that one group can do that and the other cannot, yet both groups are Xians.

    Like

    • Mriana,

      Part of the answer to your question or puzzlement is this: There are dramatically different ways of interpreting the Bible and viewing what kind of literature it is. The Southern Baptists and the liberal wing of Episcopalians (and other Mainline denom’s) use very different systems, under different assumptions. Basically, literal vs. symbolic/mythological (though that is a major oversimplification). Another aspect at the foundations is supernaturalist vs. naturalist (or modified naturalist like process theology–the approach I favor) worldviews.

      Like

  5. Jacob Brown says:

    The four defining features of the Great Commission sound like what the LDS (Mormon) Church and other high-tension proselytizing religions have been doing already for decades.

    Like

  6. I am a member of the SBC and I have never endorsed slavery, never endorse the gay lifestyle but pray for those who practice it. I will treat a gay person with respect and as a human being, but condemn his/her lifestyle. I don’t believe that a woman has the right to become a minister or paster since the Bible forbids women from doing so. I believe that the fact that mainstream churches are changing their belief system to fit Societies views is a dangerous practice. Society should be changing its way of thinking to that of Gods way of thinking.

    Like

    • J:

      “I have never endorsed slavery”

      But your god has, as has your own SBC church. More.

      “I will treat a gay person with respect and as a human being, but condemn his/her lifestyle”

      It’s not a lifestyle, it’s who they are. It’s not like it’s changeable.

      It’s like saying that you’ll respect an African American but condemn their black skin.

      “I believe that the fact that mainstream churches are changing their belief system to fit Societies views is a dangerous practice.”

      Again, your own church provides a counter-example. The SBC was a reflection of the slave-owning culture it came from. Society rejected that and (gradually!) the SBC rejected that as well and has now repudiated slavery.

      “Society should be changing its way of thinking to that of Gods way of thinking.”

      Why? God is an SOB. Read the Old Testament.

      Like

  7. Pingback: Marketing Gimmick Aims to Keep Old Time Heaven-and-Hell Religion Afloat | Away Point | Lamberth's Outlook and World View

  8. Pingback: Does the Internet Spell Doom for Organized Religion? |

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s