An Electronic Baptist Journal Bridging Yesterday and Today
[Vol. 11, No. 5]
Editor: Bruce T. Gourley, executive director, Baptist History & Heritage Society
The Baptist Studies Bulletin (BSB) is a free online journal produced by the Baptist History & Heritage Society (BH&HS) and offering scholarly analysis, informed editorials, book reviews, and special features for subscribers. You may access previous issues to or subscribe or unsubscribe from the BSB. Republishing of articles is allowed, but please provide credit and a link back to the Baptist Studies Bulletin.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
“A New American God: Eight Decades in the Making”
Part 5 of a Series
by Bruce T. Gourley
A Quest for Justice in Liberia
by Richard F. Wilson
“Reflections on Baptists and Culture”
Reexamining the Beloved Community
by Aaron Weaver
“BH&HS 2012 Conference Review”
June 7-9, FBC Raleigh, North Carolina
“Notes and Quotes”
Responses to Current Happenings
A NEW AMERICAN GOD: EIGHT DECADES IN THE MAKING
Part 5 of a Series
by Bruce T. Gourley
The decade of the sixties witnessed the ushering in of the Christian Right’s new American God (see Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4) into the halls of power in Washington, D.C. Supreme Court decisions upholding the separation of church and state by prohibiting government-sponsored prayer in public schools not only failed to blunt the advance of this political God, but instead provided his advocate-creators with more momentum.
And so it came as no surprise to astute observers when newly-elected president Richard Nixon, a Quaker and fully aware of the power of a politicized deity, on the Sunday following his first inauguration in 1969 formalized the worship of the new American God who mirrored his own anti-liberal and anti-communist sentiments. That Sunday, Nixon hosted the first of what would be many White House worship services, with popular Southern Baptist evangelist Billy Graham as worship leader. Nixon, framing the worship services as empowering his administration, declared “we feel God’s presence here, and we seek his guidance here.”
Noting how far the God of the Christian Right had risen, the cover of the Fall 1972 edition of the Post-American (later renamed Sojourners magazine), summarizing the state of American religion and the coalescing of a “Christian Coalition” under Nixon’s presidency, announced:
“God is an American and Nixon is His Prophet”
Billy Graham, fellow anti-communist and serving the role of priest to the Christian Right’s God and supporter of and spiritual advisor to Nixon and the Republican Party, in private did not mask feelings of hatred of liberals and Jews that the two men shared. Meanwhile, many mainstream Christians grew increasingly critical of Nixon’s character and policies. Early in 1974, many Quakers and the National Council of Churches issued calls for the president’s impeachment, months before such sentiment became widespread.
By the time Nixon did resign the presidency that August, the marriage of God and conservative politics had been consummated, a union that reflected the racial, cultural, social and economic divisions that had increasingly characterized America during the decade of the sixties. A post-denominational era dawned, as Christians began finding more affinity in political and theological ideologies than in denominational identities.
Against this backdrop, the decade of the seventies evidenced a transition from the new American God impacting politics to sitting in the front seat of a successful conservative political agenda. While the trajectory was uneven–Nixon himself embraced environmentalism and civil rights, issues opposed by conservatives–the larger movement was focused. White Conservative Christians increasingly placed their faith in politics as a means of forcing their social and moral beliefs upon the nation, in the process vocally opposing America’s founding principle of church state separation.
Veering noticeably from their faith heritage, many Baptists joined like-minded social and cultural conservative members of other denominations in efforts to formally enjoin state with church. Independent fundamentalist Baptist Jerry Falwell represented this remarkable transition. In the 1960s, Falwell openly embraced his Baptist heritage of church state separation. In the 1970s, he re-defined the concept of church state separation as a one-way street applying only to Christianity: Christianity (alone of all religions) should be allowed to shape the state, but the state should not interfere with Christian expressions. As Falwell explained in a July 4, 1976 sermon, “The idea [that] religion and politics don’t mix was invented by the Devil to keep Christians from running their own country.” A few years afterward, Falwell altogether abandoned the “separation” language of his Baptist forebears. [Although many independent Baptists, to their credit, remained committed to their separationist heritage.]
The crusade to reconstruct America’s history was underway. Many (almost always white) conservative and fundamentalist Christians, concerned about cultural and social trends, expressed their desire to “return America to God,” envisioning a pre-Civil Rights time when the nation was devoted to God. Projecting 1950s-era civil religion upon America’s founding fathers while ignoring the historical narrative of the nation’s founding, they created a mythical story of a country established by Christian evangelicals as God’s special, chosen nation.
Certain events and developments in the decades of the 1970s signified the empowerment of the new American God as never before, while fostering the growth of Christian nation mythology. As in the 1950s and early 1960s, Supreme Court decisions addressing issues of race, religion and morality, and perceived as “liberal,” served as a call to action. This time around, however, the white Christian Right was much more prepared to wage war against the evil forces of liberalism.
Many historians, politicians and Christian leaders point to the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, overturning legal prohibitions against many abortions, as the singular event that provided the catalyst for the creation of the organized, modern Christian Right. Some Christian Right leaders, however, point to the lesser-known 1971 Supreme Court decision Green v. Connally as the fuel that energized the movement in unprecedented ways, a narrative explored by Randall Balmer. Green v. Connally ruled that segregated institutions could not claim tax exempt status, setting in motion a fight between Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist Christian university that openly discriminated against African Americans, and the Internal Revenue Service. In defending Bob Jones’ right to racially discriminate in the years following, Paul Weyrich, conservative political activist and founder of the extremist Heritage Foundation (1973), recruited James Dobson (fundamentalist Christian and founder of Focus on the Family) and Jerry Falwell to rally the white Christian public against government intrusion into the life of conservative Christian institutions.
Meanwhile, Lutherans, Presbyterian, Southern Baptists–the latter the largest Protestant body in America–and other Christian groups were experiencing varying degrees of internal conflict brought about by fundamentalists’ theological, moral, social and nationalist agendas. The pressure was most intense within Southern Baptist life. Progressive Southern Baptist leaders did not protest Roe v. Wade and embraced Civil Rights, and were increasingly attacked by fundamentalist pastors as theological and social liberals. In the midst of the religious tension, the election of Southern Baptist layman and Sunday School teacher Jimmy Carter as U. S. president in 1976 brought the nation’s swirling religious currents to the public forefront, prompting Time Magazine to proclaim 1976 as “The Year of the Evangelical.”
Many fundamentalist, conservative, moderate and liberal Christians voted for Carter, a self-proclaimed “evangelical” Christian whose ethical and moral ideals offered a respite from the disgraced Nixon presidency. Carter’s election was viewed with great hope by many Christians, white and black. A vocal “born again” Christian, Carter openly talked of Jesus and his religious faith. Nonetheless, conservatives and fundamentalists, including many white Baptists, quickly soured on Carter for his refusal to protect Christian institutions that discriminated against African Americans, his insistence on upholding church state separation, and his propensity for reading and quoting from so-called liberal theologians.
Consequently, fundamentalist and conservative Christian opposition to Carter during the second half of his administration proved to be the capstone of the now decade-old flight of white conservative Protestants to the Republican Party, provided an impetus for the creation of the Moral Majority (of which Falwell and Weyrich were founders), and created an opening for fundamentalists to begin a self-proclaimed takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention.
As a result, by the closing months of the decade, the Southern Baptist Convention was reeling from a well-orchestrated fundamentalist onslaught led by two politically powerful Texans, Paige Patterson and Paul Pressler, and supported by independent Baptist fundamentalist Jerry Falwell. Simultaneously, Falwell’s Moral Majority was crusading against abortion, homosexuals, church state separation, sex education in the schools, pornography, liberalism, communism, and the Equal Rights Amendment, and for prayer in public schools, strong national defense, Israel, and free enterprise. Working in sync, Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan, a self-proclaimed Christian who rarely attended church, was cobbling together a platform that mirrored the agenda of the Moral Majority, plotting to capture the swelling energy and momentum of a white, conservative Christian movement that was convinced America was speeding down the highway to hell and that a holy government backed by military might and unfettered capitalism was the only way to prevent the destruction of God’s chosen nation.
Thus, five decades in the making and benefiting from the allure of legalistic religion and historical mythology, the new American God finally stepped upon the dais of the throne prepared for him by his creators.
Next Month: Part 6
Rick Wilson is a teaching theologian at Mercer University, where he is chair of the Roberts Department of Christianity. Rick also is the current chair of the Commission on Christian Ethics of the Baptist World Alliance, and a member of the First Baptist Church of Christ at Macon, Georgia, where he has served as a deacon and a Sunday School teacher. His passions include the post-war recovery of Liberia, creative cooking, and the mysteries of professional baseball.
[Editor’s note: Rick Wilson is in Liberia with a team of student educators from the Tift College of Education at Mercer University. The students—and three faculty members—are part of Mercer’s far-flung “Mercer on Mission” program that sends students to developing countries for at least three weeks in the summer for an intensive adventure that combines six credit hours of rigorous academics with a service-learning component akin to cultural immersion.
Rick has made seven trips to Liberia since 2007, always spending time at Ricks Institute, founded in 1887, which is part of the Liberian Baptist Convention’s educational presence. The Principal at Ricks Institute is the Reverend Doctor Olu Q. Menjay, a 1995 graduate of Mercer University and the current President of the Liberian Baptist Missionary and Education Convention.
For the last several years Rick has taught a course, “Peace and Reconciliation in Post-War Liberia” as part of the Mercer on Mission adventure.]
If any readers of this column doubt the reality of Hell, take some time—today—to come up to speed on the fourteen years of civil wars in Liberia that ended in 2003 when President Charles Taylor was forced to resign. His humiliation was fomented by pressures from the international community and by the domestic pressures exerted, in large part, by fed-up women, Christian and Muslim, who made international news by their protests through prayers and peaceful resistance.
Perhaps some readers have seen the documentary, “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” which recounts the extraordinary efforts of common wives, mothers, sisters, and friends who had had enough of the violence. They banded together to pray for Liberia and to protest the wholesale rape of Liberian women and slaughter of Liberian children as warlords and government officials competed to control Liberia. In the end they were a palpable presence in Accra, Ghana when the peace accords were signed that led to Charles Taylor being deposed as the President of Liberia. This year Leymah Gbowee was co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of her work in Liberia.
US President George Bush spoke the conviction of the world community when he said, in 2003, “Charles Taylor must go.”
And go, he did. First he fled to Nigeria. Then he was handed over to Liberian authorities as a prelude to being sent to The Hague in the Netherlands. There he was formally charged and arraigned for “crimes against humanity” for his role in inciting civil war in Sierra Leon, the nation that shares a border with Liberia to the North.
In April this year Charles Taylor was convicted on eleven counts of “aiding and abetting” war in Sierra Leon. On May 29, 2012 Taylor was sentenced to 50 years in a British prison for war crimes.
For those familiar with the sordid tale of Charles Taylor’s role in the destabilizing of West Africa, the irony is painful. Liberians have not (and I think will not) mount a campaign to hold Charles Taylor accountable for the horrors he foisted upon his own people. At the same time, many—maybe most—Liberians are relieved that Taylor has been taken out of the continuing conversations about justice, peace, and reconciliation in post-war Liberia.
On the day before Charles Taylor’s sentencing I had the chance to interview the former-First Lady of Liberia, now-Senator Jewel Howard Taylor. I asked her what she was anticipating from The Hague. Predictably, she deflected the question and, instead, offered a sweeping observation about post-war Liberia and the issues of accountability and reconciliation. “It is too soon!” she declared. “There is no justice in only seeking blame. We need to move ahead and find healing.”
The Senator may be correct. Justice, peace-making, and the quest for reconciliation are interwoven in a long process. To demand one at the expense of the others may do more damage to an already-fragile place; Liberia is fragile and vulnerable as it moves ahead. Peace is still a-borning in Liberia. Evidences of reconciliation appear in unlikely places, such as school yards and dormitories. Justice, restorative justice may be on the near horizon as Liberians learn to forgive and remember the horrors of the recent past.
Aaron Weaver is a doctoral candidate in Religion, Politics & Society at Baylor University. Weaver blogs at www.thebigdaddyweave.com and is the author of James M. Dunn and Soul Freedom (Smyth & Helwys, 2011).
On November 4, 2008, history was made as Senator Barack Obama was elected President of the United States. The same day that witnessed the election of the nation’s first African-American President, voters in California passed Proposition 8, which added a provision to the California constitution banning same-sex marriage. Exit polls were interpreted to conclude that African-American opposition to same-sex marriage combined with high African-American voter turnout sealed the passage of the controversial ballot initiative. The media backlash against African-Americans was immediate and forceful.
The passage of Proposition 8 put a national spotlight on the conservative attitudes of African-Americans toward homosexuality and gay rights. While most Black Baptist leaders have been opposed to same-sex marriage, a small but growing number of dissenters have publicly challenged this anti-gay rights orthodoxy. Throughout this debate, both sides have invoked the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his vision of a Beloved Community, described by theologian Charles Marsh as “the realization of divine love lived in social relation.”
Opposition to gay rights has expressed itself in Black Baptist life at both the institutional and individual levels. Black Baptist denominations have generally employed a strategy of silence, refusing to take an official position on these issues. This strategy, however, has not been adopted at the individual level. Many visible and influential pastors have not hesitated to speak out against gay rights often declaring that their struggle for civil rights should not be compared with the quest for gay rights.
While heated rhetoric has characterized the responses of some Black Baptist pastors, others have advanced more civil and reasoned arguments. For example, Rev. Gerald Durley of Atlanta has argued that voting rights, housing rights and transportation rights are “sanctioned by God.” According to Durley, African-Americans have struggled for those particular rights solely because they are “ordained” by God. Therefore, Durley contended that Christians should not spend energy advocating for a legal right such as same-sex marriage not ordained or sanctioned by God.
Meanwhile, a group of Black Baptist dissenters comprised largely of respected civil rights icons have championed equal legal rights for gays and lesbians. Most notable among these dissenters is the late widow of Dr. King. Just days before the 30th anniversary of her husband’s assassination, King issued an appeal “to everyone who believes in Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream to make room at the table of brother and sisterhood for lesbian and gay people.” King stressed that “homophobic attitudes and policies were unjust and unworthy of a free society.”
Like Coretta Scot King, U.S. Congressman John Lewis – a veteran civil rights leader – has been a faithful proponent of gay rights for many years frequently citing the words of Dr. King. When speaking specifically about same-sex marriage, Lewis has recalled Dr. King’s famous dictum that individuals, not races, fall in love and get married. Lewis has used this quote to draw an explicit comparison between current legal bans on same-sex marriage and legal bans which existed for most o the twentieth century on interracial marriage.
Very few Black Baptist pastors have come out in favor of gay rights. Perhaps the most noteworthy dissenting-preacher is the Rev. Dr. Frederick Hayes of Dallas’ 12,000-member Friendship-West Baptist Church. At a 2009 summit on homophobia, Haynes recalled that the joy he experienced in witnessing the election of Barack Obama began to disappear with the passage of Proposition 8 in his home-state of California. Haynes declared that it “blew [his] mind” that “the same persons who voted for Barack Obama…also voted in a real sense as cohorts, as allies of injustice.”
During the 2008 presidential campaign, then Senator Obama, speaking before the packed sanctuary at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, reminded the crowd that historically African-Americans had been at the “receiving end of man’s inhumanity to man.” Obama noted, “If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll acknowledge that our community has not always been true to King’s vision of a Beloved Community.”
Have African-Americans lived up to Dr. King’s vision? Or have African-Americans been operating from different visions of the Beloved Community? I argue the latter. Defenders of the anti-gay rights orthodoxy hold to a vision of the Beloved Community that sees no connection between gay rights and civil rights, a vision in which same-sex marriage is – without a doubt – not a civil right. Why? Because the Bible tells them so. These Black Baptists clearly believe that when it comes to gay rights issues there is indeed a direct route from the Bible to the ballot box. Scripture mandates opposition to gay rights in the political arena.
Meanwhile, Black Baptist dissenters embrace a vision of the Beloved Community that sees the movement for gay rights and “marriage equality” to be connected to the Civil Rights Movement. Emphasizing community and conscience, these dissenters reject Bible-based arguments against equal legal rights for same-sex couples. For dissenters, the Beloved Community is a vision in which rights are expanded not restricted. Legal prohibitions on same-sex marriage are viewed as a major impediment to the realization of the Beloved Community. In this vision, dissenters contend that the freedom found in Christ or liberty of conscience -informed by the love ethic of Jesus – necessitates dogged, unwavering support for gay rights.
This contentious debate will inevitably continue in the foreseeable future. As it does, recent developments suggest that the tension between these two competing visions of the Beloved Community will only grow stronger.
The 2012 Annual Conference of the Baptist History & Heritage Society was held June 7-9 in Raleigh, North Carolina, hosted by the First Baptist Churches of Raleigh in conjunction with Campbell University. Bill Leonard, Glenn Jonas and Fisher Humphreys were the featured keynote speakers.
“To see that God through his grace and mercy has allowed something like this to happen in my life, and to see it embraced by so many ethnic groups to affirm the vote is a moment I’ll never forget as long as I live …. If we stop appointing blacks and Hispanics to leadership positions after my administration, we will have failed.” Comments from the Rev. Fred Luter, Jr. of New Orleans following his election as the Southern Baptist Convention’s first African American president. (link)
“Every Southern Baptist is free to believe more than the confession affirms, but never less.” Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Al Mohler, this month criticizing Southern Baptist opponents of Calvinism and explaining the creedal nature and function of the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, a statement he assisted in the formulation of. In response, Adam Harwood, Assistant Professor of Christian Studies st Truett-McConnell College–and a signer of the BF&M 2000, as all Truett-McConnell professors must be–takes Mohler to task over his criticisms of non-Calvinists. (link)
“… [It is about] what it means to be Catholic in the 21st century.” Vatican specialist reporter John Allen explaining the larger meaning of the Roman Catholic Church’s crackdown on dissidents, a campaign based on the Vatican’s belief that strict adherence to the teachings of the Roman Catholic magisterium is the only valid route to Christian unity. (link)
June 20-23, 2012 – Cooperative Baptist Fellowship national General Assembly. Theme: Infinitely More. Program information and registration.
July 4, 2012 – 200th Birthday Celebration of the Rev. John Jasper, legendary 19th-century preacher and founding pastor of Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church (Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church, 14 West Duval Street, Richmond, VA; call 804-648-7511 for lunch reservations)
July 4-7, 2012 –The Baptist Historical Society Summer School and the Centre for Baptist History and Heritage International Conference at Regent’s Park College, Oxford, UK. Theme: “Freedom and the Powers: Perspectives from Baptist History.” The conference celebrates the 400th anniversary of the publication of Thomas Helwys’ The Mystery of Iniquity. Speakers include Prof. John Briggs, Prof. Malcolm Evans on ‘Freedom of Religion: Past, Present, Future’, Revd Canon Dr Michael Bordeaux, Prof. David Killingray on ‘The Revd Dr Theophilus Scholes (1856-1930s): black Baptist critic at the heart of Empire’, Dr Alison Searle on ‘Freedom and the Powers: The Personal and Public Worlds of Baptist Women (1640-80)’, and Dr Toivo Pilli on ‘Baptist Leaders and the Atheistic Powers: A Soviet Estonian Case Study’. One more short paper is being sought. For more information, contact contact Dr Ian Randall, firstname.lastname@example.org.
July 11-14, 2012 – International Conference on Baptist Studies VI (Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Wake Forest, North Carolina)
October 12-13, 2012 — “Baptists and the Shaping of American Culture” Conference, University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, Belton, Texas. Featured speakers include Sandy Martin, Pamela Smoot, Adam Bond, James Byrd, Carol Crawford Holcomb, Elizabeth Flowers, Melody Maxwell, Susan Shaw, Alyson Dickson, and Wayne Flynt. More information.
May 20-22, 2013 – BH&HS Annual Conference, “Civil War, Emancipation and Reconciliation” (University of Richmond)
November 14-16, 2013 – Judson Conference 2013, a joint conference sponsored by the American Baptist Historical Society and McAfee School of Theology. More information.