Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Culture War Loses Southern Baptists

Remember back when Donald Trump signed an executive order signaling his intent to repeal the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits churches from endorsing political candidates or parties? And remember how I said that if it goes through, "non-political" will most likely become a selling point for Christian churches on par with what "non-denominational" has been for many years?

It's happening, folks. The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), America's largest Protestant denomination with fifteen million members, has moved to distance itself from the Republican Party. According to The Atlantic, the denomination is shifting to accommodate younger members, many of whom reject the (fundamentally ridiculous) "culture war" rhetoric that the SBC has been pushing for decades.

“The generational shift happening in the SBC has thrust the group into the middle of an identity crisis,” says Barry Hankins, the chair of the department of history at Baylor University and co-author of Baptists in America: A History. “The younger generation thinks differently than the old-guard Christian right about culture and politics, and they are demanding change.”

To enact this change, young Baptists nominated 45-year-old pastor J.D. Greear from North Carolina to be president of the denomination. In a campaign video, Greear called for “a new culture and a new posture in the Southern Baptist Convention.”

Refusing to cede power without a fight, fundamentalist Baptists nominated Ken Hemphill as an opposition candidate. But Greear won with nearly 70 percent of the vote, becoming the youngest SBC president in 37 years.

Greear has promised to lead the denomination down a different path, which, he has said, must include efforts both to repent of a “failure to listen to and honor women and racial minorities” and “to include them in proportionate measures in top leadership roles.” If the meeting in Dallas is any indication, his vision is resonating with a large number of the next wave of Baptist leaders.

Of course, this doesn't mean the Southern Baptists will become liberal overnight or anything like that. Much of their membership is still quite conservative. But as I've noted here many times, there's a difference between being Christian and a conservative, and being a "Christian conservative." The former is a set of religious belief and a set of political beliefs. The latter pretty much means you're a Poor Oppressed Christian who is "oppressed" by the mere existence of different beliefs and doesn't see anything wrong with suppressing them - all the while claiming special rights and privileges for the Poor Oppressed only.

The role of the SBC in aligning the Religious Right with the Republican Party cannot be underestimated. For example, Southern Baptist Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority, a key player during the Reagan administration, and Liberty University, which cranked out many of the religious zealots who filled many federal posts during the George W. Bush administration and is still going strong. As The Atlantic reports, the SBC shifted in a fundamentalist direction from the late 1960's onward largely due to the work of two men, Paige Patterson and Paul Pressler.

In 1967, at New Orleans’s historic CafĂ© du Monde, a young seminary student named Paige Patterson and Texas Judge Paul Pressler met over a plate of beignets to hatch a plan to unite conservative Southern Baptists and take over America’s largest Protestant denomination.

The two men successfully executed their strategy in the subsequent decades, a movement they labeled the “Conservative Resurgence” and their opponents dubbed the “Fundamentalist Takeover.” Whatever one calls it, the result was a purging of moderates from among denominational ranks, the codifying of literal interpretations of the Bible, and the transformation of the Southern Baptist Convention into a powerful ally of the Republican Party. For years, the two men were revered by many of the roughly 15 million members of the SBC as paragons of virtue. When the Southern Baptist Convention met last week in Dallas, however, public scandals kept both leaders away.

A lawsuit filed against Pressler alleging decades of sexual molestation, beginning while the plaintiff was just 14, included two additional affidavits from individuals alleging that Pressler had committed sexual misconduct against them while they were young men. And Patterson has drawn criticism for encouraging abused women to submit to their violent husbands. He was dismissed from his post as president of Southwestern Seminary after being accused of failing to properly report at least two allegations of rape. More than 3,000 Southern Baptist women signed a petition calling for his resignation.

“When Southwestern’s executive committee terminated Paige Patterson as president, Southern Baptists closed the book on the Patterson-Pressler era,” said Keith Harper, a Baptist historian and co-author of SBC FAQs: A Ready Reference. “It signaled an opportunity for something new—new leadership, new direction, and a new emphasis on engaging our culture.” In a blink, the paragons became personae non grata among their brethren. And their ignominious departures created a power vacuum that primed the denomination for revolution.

If you needed yet another reminder that Poor Oppressed Christians are basically terrible people, there you go. They think they're special and laws don't apply to them, and it is quite possible that their religiosity mostly serves to ease their guilt over leading distinctly in-Christian lives. After all, Jesus forgives, right? That means you can be an absolute piece of shit and still make it into heaven as long as you believe - but somehow, I think that if the Christian churches are right about salvation, God has to be at least intelligent enough to know a loophole when he sees one.

At any rate, the article also goes on to say that the SBC is extremely uncomfortable with many Trump administration policies - which is good, really. Much of what Trump is doing is entirely opposed to real Christian teachings, and for months critics have been pointing out how weird it is that conservative Christians are supporting them. Perhaps what's going on here with the SBC is that they're finally waking up to the hypocrisy of being a Christian and supporting tax cuts for the rich, punishing the poor, demonizing immigrants, separating immigrant families, locking up immigrant children... and the list goes on and on and on.

Just as the SBC was the vanguard of the conservative Religious Right, maybe this latest move will be the vanguard of a more liberal, or at least a more reasonable, form of public Christianity. As I've stressed here on Augoeides, nobody cares if you're Christian, even a very conservative one. What we non-Christians get worked up about is when conservative Christians try to shove their beliefs down our throats. We don't need them to change their beliefs, we need them to mind their own business.

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