An Electronic Baptist Journal Bridging Yesterday and Today
[Vol. 11, No. 8]
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 8 of a Series
by Bruce T. Gourley
“Religion and the Civil War, Emancipation and Reconciliation in our Time”
May 20-22, 2013 BH&HS Conference in Richmond, Virginia
Call for Paper Proposals
“Reflections on Baptists and Culture”
Red, White and Blogging: Young Evangelicals and the Politics of the Future
by Aaron Weaver
“Notes and Quotes”
Responses to Current Happenings
A NEW AMERICAN GOD: EIGHT DECADES IN THE MAKING
Part 8 of a Series
by Bruce T. Gourley
The new millennium arrived with a sobering truth for the Christian Right: in the past three decades, the only Democrats elected president (Jimmy Carter from Georgia and Bill Clinton from Arkansas) had been Southern Baptists, while a third Southern Baptist–Al Gore from Tennessee–stood poised to challenge the eventual Republican nominee.
By now, the Christian Right, including Southern Baptist Convention leaders, were completely loyal to the Republican Party, having long-castigated Democrats as liberals and the enemy of their God, terms deemed synonymous (see Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6 and Part 7 of this series). That they had thus far been unable to defeat moderate Southern Baptist candidates in presidential politics was an irony that hung thick in the election year air.
For round three of Southern Baptist Democrat presidential candidates vs unchurced (Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole), lightly churched (George H. W. Bush) and churched (Gerald Ford) Republican contenders, yet another religious lightweight figure emerged as the standard bearer of the Republican Party and Christian Right: George W. Bush, the former wayward son of George H. W. Bush.
A former alcoholic with no interest in religion for much of his life, in November 1999, in the heat of the 2000 presidential campaign, Bush suddenly ingratiated himself with the Christian Right with the timely release of a book, A Charge to Keep, that was a testimony of his personal faith in Christ. This was followed by a December 1999 public statement, made during a debate between Republican candidates, that Jesus Christ was his favorite philosopher. During the campaign, Bush frequently told evangelical audiences that Christ had “changed” his heart and in the years following his election described his salvation experience, or more properly, experiences. At various times in his writings and discourses Bush credited either evangelist Arthur Blessit in 1984, or evangelist Billy Graham in 1985, for leading him to Christ. Regardless of the eventual differing salvation experiences (Graham disputed Bush’s account concerning him), a major part of Bush’s narrative of sin and redemption during the 2000 campaign was his turning from alcohol in 1986 and his belief that public service was his divine destiny.
Although Al Gore also frequently invoked his personal [Baptist] faith and utilized biblical quotations on the campaign trail, the Christian Right, long committed to the Republican Party, felt that they had finally found a presidential candidate who was one of them. Bush, in effect, was the first major Republican candidate in three decades who not only told conservative evangelicals what they wanted to hear, but lived in their world (never mind that his membership was in the liberal United Methodist Church). In the end, Bush ended the string of Southern Baptist Democrat victories when a highly-divided, conservative-majority U.S. Supreme Court handed a controversial victory to the Republican in the face of uncertainty over which candidate actually won the Florida vote count. Although Gore garnered the greater share of the U.S. popular vote, Bush barely won the electoral count, thanks to the Bush v. Gore decision, in one of the most controversial presidential elections in the nation’s history. The Christian Right’s God thus secured his greatest victory yet in his quest to remake America into his image.
George W. Bush, as providence would have it, came to office at just the right time. The attack on the United States on September 11, 2001 by Islamic fundamentalists made it clear to the Christian Right that America was called to a holy war against Islam and secular liberalism. Two days after 9/11, Southern Baptist leader Jerry Falwell declared:
“But, throwing God out successfully with the help of the federal court system, throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools. The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way — all of them who have tried to secularize America — I point the finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen.’”
In the months and years following, the Christian Right, including Tim LaHaye’s Council for National Policy and the Southern Baptist Convention (with many individuals convinced that Armageddon was at hand), cheered on George W. Bush (69% of conservative Christians supported the invasion of Iraq) as Bush trumped up a pretext for invading Iraq, a Muslim nation that had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks. Conservative evangelicals took political marching orders from their Bush-gushing pastors and, at home, the Republican news network Fox News.
Exceptions were few. The most notable dissenting voice was conservative, evangelical Baptist pastor Greg Boyd of megachurch Woodland Hills Church in Minnesota. In the summer of 2006, Boyd publicly opposed president Bush, the Iraq war, and the theocratic agenda of the Christian Right in a series of six sermons in which he declared (among other things):
“America wasn’t founded as a theocracy. America was founded by people trying to escape theocracies. Never in history have we had a Christian theocracy where it wasn’t bloody and barbaric. That’s why our Constitution wisely put in a separation of church and state….
I am sorry to tell you that America is not the light of the world and the hope of the world. The light of the world and the hope of the world is Jesus Christ.”
Boyd’s dissension split his church and brought down the wrath of the Christian Right. A year later, the conservative evangelical war against Islam channeled through Bush’s wars remained front and center on the Christian Right’s agenda. By this time, the Iraq war had turned into a seemingly endless slog with no victory in sight, souring the American public. Only the war-mongering Christian Right remained solidly behind the president.
In the meantime, Bush the evangelical had fully captivated the Christian Right in the presidential campaign of 2004. Conservative evangelicals turned out in record numbers to vote for their Republican hero, citing moral issues as their greatest concerns. Following Bush’s re-election over Democrat opponent John Kerry (a northeastern Catholic), Southern Baptist leader Richard Land intoned, “The Bible says godly leadership is a sign of God’s blessings and a lack of godly leadership is a sign of God’s judgment. I don’t see Kerry as a godly leader.” Many other Christian Right leaders declared America to be blessed with Bush as president, and declared that Kerry’s election would have been a curse from God. Through Bush’s leadership, America was destined to defeat the global Muslim threat (which had replaced the former global communist threat) abroad, while God had also called upon his faithful to oppose Muslim advances within the United States.
Remarkably, however, the Christian Right’s God abandoned Bush by the end of his second term, even as the crusade against Islam yet galvanized conservative evangelicals. As late as the summer of 2007 the Southern Baptist Convention wanted to believe in Bush. But having conspired with the president to invade Iraq (and hopefully light the fuse to Armageddon) and pinned their hopes for America’s global triumph and moral revival on his shoulders, conservative evangelicals grew increasingly disappointed in Bush’s moral character, his seeming inability to ultimately ensure the safety of America, and the economic downturn brought about by his domestic policies. By the 2008 election year, the Christian Right no longer wanted to talk about Bush, and instead turned their attention to finding a new Republican hero to fulfill their not-yet-realized agenda.
Thus, the 2008 election season unfolded against the backdrop of the ongoing and widely unpopular Iraq and Afghanistan wars, America in the midst of a financial collapse, the global economy on the skids, and the Christian Right desperate (again) to elect a Republican president to represent their God and rescue the nation from domestic immorality and global threats to Christianity. Yet some of the Christian Right faithful could not help but wonder: if George W. Bush, who for a time had been all that they wanted but in the end turned into a bitter disappointment, could not take America to the Promised Land–could any Republican?
Whatever might transpire next, however, the Christian Right entered into the 2008 election season with a newly-honed weapon: the successful redefining of the concept of “religious liberty” in public discourse to mean special (and divinely deserved) privileges for evangelical Christians over against Muslims, secular liberals, Christian liberals, and Democrats (or any combination thereof).
Next Month: Part 9
Theme: “Faith, Freedom, Forgiveness: Religion and the Civil War, Emancipation and Reconciliation in Our Time”
Overview of Conference: The 2013 Annual Conference of the Baptist History & Heritage Society, “Faith, Freedom, Forgiveness: Religion and the Civil War, Emancipation and Reconciliation in Our Time,” will be May 20-22 in Richmond, Virginia.
The conference will be co-sponsored by the Virginia Baptist Historical Society and the Center for Baptist Heritage and Studies, and hosted by the University of Richmond, Virginia Union University, and local Baptist congregations. Featured speakers include Harry Stout (Yale University), Edward Ayers (University of Richmond) and Andrew Manis (Macon State).
For more information regarding the conference, visit the conference webpage.
Submit Your Paper Prospectus by December 19, 2012: The Baptist History & Heritage Society invites submissions for papers for its annual 2013 conference to be held May 20-22 in Richmond, Virginia. This is an open invitation for paper proposals. The conference will explore the relationship of religion to the American Civil War and Emancipation, as well as the dynamics of religious faith as related to the continuous journey of racial reconciliation in America. The exploration of religious themes includes, but is not limited to, the Baptist faith. Paper proposals should explore one of the three conference emphases:
- Religion and the Civil War
- Religion and Emancipation
- Religion and Racial Reconciliation
Paper proposals should be 500 words or less in length and focus primarily on one of the three broad topics above, although paper proposals that intersect more than one of the three topics are welcome. Proposals should be accompanied by a CV. Submit proposal and CV to BH&HS President Delane Tew at firstname.lastname@example.org, no later than December 19, 2012. Information about previous annual conferences is available here. Please direct any questions to BH&HS Executive Director Bruce Gourley.
Image: African American Troops Liberating Slaves in North Carolina (Library of Congress)
Aaron Weaver is a doctoral candidate in Religion, Politics & Society at Baylor University. Weaver blogs at The Big Daddy Weave and is the author of James M. Dunn and Soul Freedom (Smyth & Helwys, 2011).
With the 2012 presidential election just weeks away, there has been much talk and many tweets, blogs and columns devoted to the topic of Christians and political engagement. As a sometime participant in these online debates, I have paid special interest to the types of political engagement approaches advocated by Baptists and others in the social arena. At least three distinct approaches have dominated these discussions. The loudest advocates of these approaches—which have found popular support in different corners of the mostly conservative evangelical online arena—have all been of a younger generation.
Meet Owen Strachan. Strachan is Assistant Professor of Christian Theology and Church History at Boyce College, the undergraduate arm of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Strachan represents the third-generation of Southern Baptist culture warriors. When sociologists and pollsters declare that the younger generation of evangelicals is more politically centrist, they are not referring to the many committed Christian conservatives like Strachan. With an intense focus on the twin culture war issues of gay rights and abortion rights, Strachan remains committed to pursuing the agenda of second-generation warriors like Ralph Reed and Tony Perkins.
Strachan’s form of political engagement is best characterized as thoroughly conservative and unashamedly partisan. In 1998, Richard Land famously declared about the relationship between the Religious Right and the Republican Party: “The go-along, get-along strategy is dead. No more engagement. We want a wedding ring, we want a ceremony, we want a consummation of the marriage.” Nearly fifteen years later, the wedding bells long ago rang. Like virtually ever other visible Southern Baptist, Strachan is comfortable with this marriage. He represents a political engagement approach that values continuity rather than discontinuity with the past.
Jonathan Merritt, popular author and the son of a former SBC president, represents a fresher political engagement approach. Echoing the thinking of respected Texas Baptist ethicist T.B. Maston, Merritt calls himself a “Christian Independent.” Merritt argues that “partisanship often produces irrationalism.” He asks, “If [non-Christians] see the irrationality of Christian partisanship, how can they expect anyone to believe other incredible claims about God and Jesus?” For Merritt, the partisan mindset is destructive. Jesus, according to Merritt, “seemed to take a non-partisan position in the divisive culture wars of His day.” Merritt’s answer to the popular partisan Christianity welcomed and affirmed by Owen Strachan and others is not political apathy. Merritt shuns an ethic of disengagement. Instead, he insists that Christians must “advocate for whichever policies our faith dictates.” Merritt contends that “By eschewing either political party, we remain most faithful to the One who transcends both.”
Evangelical author and blogger Rachel Held Evans represents a third popular approach to politics. Evans shares with Merritt a strong dislike of culture wars. She writes, “We are tired of fighting, tired of vain efforts to advance the Kingdom through politics and power…tired of being known for what we are against, not what we are for.” Evans champions cultural engagement that is relational rather than political. Writing about the on-going marriage battles, Evans urges conservative Christians to “stop talking about LGBT folks and start talking with LGBT folks. Unlike Merritt, however, Evans does not encourage Christians to be politically involved. While not discouraging such involvement, her culture war critique nonetheless serves to offer a justification for political apathy.
In this election cycle, these three political engagement approaches have gained a popular following among younger centrist and conservative evangelicals. What is missing, however, is a fourth perspective that first and foremost demands political involvement as a responsibility of Christian citizens while rejecting the extreme partisan approach and viewing political parties in a more positive light. For better or worse, we as a nation are saddled with a two-party political system. Political parties necessarily matter. How can we as Christians simultaneously eschew political parties while attempting to effectively function within the two-party political system? Perhaps there is a less naive approach that steers clear of being seduced and taken-for-granted?
The notable absence among these evangelicals of such a fourth perspective that affirms Christians who identify as Republicans and Christians who identify as Democrats is a tell-tale sign. The extreme partisan approach as seen in the consummated marriage of the Religious Right and Republican Party will only be bolstered as more centrist evangelicals are pushed toward and choose the path of being “Independent” and receive moral cover for their apathy. Without the emergence of a new popular political perspective, the political future of evangelicalism will in all likelihood continue to be bright red.
“My … hope is that we will find ways of teaching and honoring our history and heritage. Our traditional Baptist values — honoring freedom, standing up for the cause of religious liberty, and benefiting from diversity of opinion, among others — are not only relevant in today’s world, they are necessary.” Young Baptist minister Stephanie McLeskey, Chaplain, Mars Hill College, in the September/October 2012 issue of CBF North Carolina’s newsletter, “The Gathering.” (link)
“For decades, [David] Barton has tried to write enlightenment deism out of American history, but it seems that by attempting to turn the famously freethinking Thomas Jefferson into a pious precursor of the modern Christian right, he finally went too far. ‘Books like that makes Christian scholarship look bad,’ says Warren Throckmorton, an evangelical professor of psychology at Grove City College, a conservative Christian school in Pennsylvania. ‘If that’s what people are passing off as Christian scholarship, there are claims in there that are easily proved false.’” Reaction to the conservative uproar generated over Christian theocrat, and pseudo-historian, David Bartons’ latest book, The Jefferson Lies. (link)
“We must reclaim the principle of respect in our dealings with others. A common theme around the table is that we need to stop the exaggerations and caricatures of those whose perspective on the extent of the atonement is different from ours. We must avoid the twin ditches of anger and arrogance that threaten to pull us off the road of cooperation.” Statement from an Southern Baptist Convention advisory team, appointed by SBC president Frank Page, concerning the increasingly divisive and abrasive issue of Calvinism in Southern Baptist life. (link)
September 29, 2012 — “Old-Time Camp Meeting Service,” at 4 p.m. at the Performing Arts Center of Reinhardt University, in Waleska, Georgia. Presented by Meridian Herald, the camp meeting will feature old-time preaching, prayer, and singing. Admission is free. More information.
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.
October 30, 2012 — Texas Baptists Committed annual meeting in Corpus Christi at the American Bank Center. The theme is “Going Forward” and David Hardage, BGCT Executive Director, is the guest speaker. Reservations by October 22 required. More information.
November 4-5, 2012 — CBF Georgia Fall General Assembly, First Baptist Church, Griffin, Georgia. Bruce Gourley will be leading a breakout session entitled ”From George Washington to Barack Obama: Baptists and Presidential Elections.” 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.