COMMENTARY: An honest assessment of the Southern Baptist Convention

June 10

BALTIMORE — With the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Baltimore this week (June 10-11), objective analysis of the SBC’s achievements and challenges is elusive.

Convention insiders see their world through particularly rose-colored glasses, preferring a version of their own history that is selective, if not outright revisionist. They have slick, high-tech public relations operations, but their Baptist Press lacks editorial independence. Dissent is discouraged and sometimes forbidden, and SBC communications read like self-congratulatory commercials.

Opponents fare no better in assessing Baptist life. The SBC has many detractors, including liberals, gays and ex-Baptists. These critics often exhibit a visceral loathing of the SBC, making analysis and even conversation impossible.

My experience with Southern Baptists falls between these extremes. Long sympathetic to the moderates who were systematically forced out of positions of leadership and influence a generation ago, I assumed the worst: SBC leaders must be anti-intellectual, homophobic and possibly even racist authoritarians who cared mostly about their own power.

Then I got to know some of them.

I found these gentlemen to be thoughtful, kind and good-humored pastors, teachers and advocates. Their ideological commitments stem from conviction, not from animus. There was indeed a great battle in the 1980s, and their side won. To the victors go the spoils, as they say.

A generation after the “Conservative Resurgence,” the SBC has capitalized on its remarkable unity. While there remains considerable variation in local congregations, the institutional SBC is as streamlined, efficient and focused as ever.

This is not to say there are no matters of controversy, but the nature and scope of disagreements make doctrinal and ideological cohesion — not infighting — hallmarks of today’s Southern Baptist Convention.

The best-known and most public debate concerns the doctrines of Reformed theology (Calvinism), which a growing number of the SBC’s most influential figures now embrace. SBC leaders are pleased that the convention is having a robust debate about the doctrines of salvation and not, like many other Protestant bodies, about same-sex marriage and LGBT issues. Some reports about the SBC’s shift in tone on the culture wars imply that a change in substance may also be afoot. But there is no evidence that the SBC is opening the door to accepting homosexuality.

Last month, a Southern Baptist congregation in California affirmed same-sex relationships. If and when state and national Baptist bodies move to expel that congregation, it will be a strong signal to other pastors and churches: Homosexuality is not up for debate.

Southern Baptist laypeople have not accepted homosexuality as quickly as the general public, but they face strong and compelling impulses to reconsider their religious opposition — from the broader culture and from their own experiences with gay co-workers, neighbors and relatives who do not seem like especially vile sinners living in defiant rebellion against God.

The SBC is committed to meeting these objections with clear reminders that homosexuality is non-negotiable. Baptist leaders are fully prepared to part company with insufficiently “convictional” Christians who, they say, have themselves parted company with the clear teaching of Scripture and 2,000 years of church tradition.

For a denomination founded (in 1845) on support for human slavery and with a less-than-stellar civil rights record, the SBC has made significant strides in race relations. The Rev. Fred Luter of New Orleans is finishing a two-year stint as the convention’s first black president. Unfortunately, Southern Baptists missed an opportunity to condemn the recent voter suppression efforts in many states where they wield significant influence. Their silence sends a signal.

In the political arena, the Rev. Russell Moore has impressed many in his first year as president of the convention’s public policy arm, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Moore, the Southern Baptists’ most visible spokesman, has brought focus and a winsome tone to Baptists’ legal and legislative advocacy with his mantra of “convictional kindness.”

With its religious liberty implications, Moore’s top priority has been Hobby Lobby’s challenge to the federal government’s contraceptive mandate. He has also, of course, emphasized traditional marriage and protecting unborn human life. Yet the ERLC has also lobbied on behalf of immigration reform and against gambling and payday lending.

In the realm of human sexuality, many SBC activists have found increasing common ground with Roman Catholics, profiting from their engagement with elements of the Catholic intellectual tradition. Of course, these strident Republican partisans whose denomination was forged in deafness to justice in support of an economic regime oppose or ignore Christian teaching on economic issues.

To be sure, the SBC faces many challenges. Declining baptism and membership figures raise questions about mission and strategy. An increasingly secular culture may mean that it is more “costly” for Baptists to live “biblically,” even in the South. Leaders are already encouraging members to reconsider egalitarian family structures, artificial contraception and even public schools.

Fascinating questions remain concerning leadership, political posture and diversity. The SBC remains a spiritual home for nearly 16 million Americans. Its place in the scope of Baptist history, in GOP politics and in the broader context of American evangelicalism will be worth watching for many years to come. Whether I agree or disagree with Southern Baptists (and I’ve done both), I wish them well.

(Jacob Lupfer is a frequent commentator on religion and American public life. A Ph.D. candidate in political science at Georgetown, Lupfer is writing a dissertation on religious elites in politics. His website is www.jacoblupfer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jlupf.)

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