Southern Baptists find themselves in the midst of another political controversy over the upcoming appearance — now canceled — of Ben Carson at their Pastors’ Conference.
Carson is a celebrated neurosurgeon, conservative commentator and likely presidential candidate. A number of Baptist pastors, especially those affiliated with Baptist21, spoke out against Carson’s appearance. Their concerns were primarily that Carson, as a Seventh-Day Adventist, presumably holds doctrines that fit uneasily with evangelical theology.
Carson has also made statements about Muslims, Jews and Christians all being “God’s children,” perhaps implying that there are multiple paths to God. Hosting Carson and other Republican candidates, the critics said, continues to convey the impression that the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is “in bed with the Republican Party,” as Baptist21 put it. Leaders of the Pastors’ Conference “mutually agreed” with Carson that he would withdraw.
This was a welcome outcome to what had the potential to be a serious snafu for the SBC. Whatever the organizers’ intentions, Baptist21 has this exactly right – hosting any political candidate carries a tacit implication of endorsement. Baptists and other evangelical denominations would do better to stop platforming political candidates at all. This includes handing out political pamphlets and “voter guides” at church.
The Carson controversy highlights a major question of identity that has been with Baptists a long time, as my new book (with Barry Hankins) “Baptists in America” suggests. Are Baptists insiders or outsiders in American politics and culture? The early experiences of Baptists in colonial America left no doubt — Baptists were persecuted outsiders. Horsewhipped for illegal preaching in Virginia, fined for failing to pay taxes to the Congregationalist Church in New England, they were widely reviled as troublemakers and outlaws.
Over time, however, relentless evangelism and church planting turned Baptist churches into the largest Protestant cohort in America. In areas of the South, they still function like a kind of de facto established church. But are they still outsiders, even if they dominate the American religious landscape?
Since the 1970s, Baptists — especially those affiliated with the Moral Majority and similar movements — have taken a decided turn toward a political insider posture, assuming that they should function as political kingmakers and cozy up with presidential aspirants (most notably Ronald Reagan).
Evangelicals do understandably want to influence political debates on issues from the nature of marriage to immigration policy. But groups like Baptist21 rightly herald the risks of seeking insider status.
If politics creeps toward the center of the evangelical mission, then the gospel of salvation through the grace of Christ alone can become corrupted by politicization (usually Republicanization, at least for the SBC). Baptists can seem more concerned with preserving nominal Christian culture and aligning with politicians who affirm that culture, rather than proclaiming with laser focus that each person is lost without Christ, and that, as Jesus taught in the Gospel of John, they must be born again.
From the slave trade to civil rights, Christians have done great good in political advocacy for just causes. But there’s always a risk that seeking and achieving insider status will blur the core biblical message of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
Thomas S. Kidd is professor of history at Baylor University, and is the author, with Baylor’s Barry Hankins, of “Baptists in America: A History” (Oxford University Press).