An Electronic Baptist Journal Bridging Yesterday and Today
[Vol. 11, No. 4]
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 4 of a Series
by Bruce T. Gourley
On Tail-lights and Headlights: Thinking about North Carolina’s Amendment One
by Richard F. Wilson
“Reflections on Baptists and Culture”
Dividing and Conquering in the Name of God
by Aaron Weaver
“BH&HS 2012 Conference Update”
June 7-9, FBC Raleigh, North Carolina
“Notes and Quotes”
Responses to Current Happenings
A NEW AMERICAN GOD: EIGHT DECADES IN THE MAKING
Part 4 of a Series
by Bruce T. Gourley
The mid-1960s witnessed a ratcheting up of a clash between social and cultural ideologies in America. As white political and religious conservatives increasingly sought security in racial, sexual and theological homogeneity couched within a nationalistic framework, other Americans (non-whites, plus a young white generation increasingly willing to question sexual norms and the growing industrial-military complex) focused on greater freedom, striving to expand the American experience. The new American God (see Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3) of the Christian Right was now well-positioned to reinforce the conservative retrenchment, even as some progressive thinkers posited that the traditional God had become irrelevant. In short, conservatives reshaped God to meet escalating American challenges, while liberal scholars argued that modernity had outgrown a need for God. From either perspective, the 1960s signaled a sea change for religion in America.
The conservatives’ new American God served as a divine general battling the forces of secularization, communism and liberalism, directing his foot soldiers on earth toward a siege-focused mentality in a world increasingly viewed as under the power of evil. Racial structures and sexual codes became the home front defense for saving America.
Since the American Civil War, cultural and social conservatives in the Southern U.S., ideological descendants of a white Confederacy that shed blood of biblical proportions in order to defend God’s ordained will that African Americans live enslaved to whites, had fought bitterly to keep the white race from being tainted by proximity to blacks. As racial integration inched forward beginning in the 1950s, white southerners at large resisted black advancement by acts of terrorism upon African Americans, while simultaneously defending the purity of the white race by entrenching in their holy fortresses. Rhetorically, they accused black Civil Rights leaders of being in league with communists, secularists and liberals, while dismissing the significance of the fact that African American ministers and churches stood at the forefront of the Civil Rights movement, preaching the Gospel of Christ.
The story of Southern white resistance to racial mingling is one of the more documented periods of American history. Many white conservatives, often self-proclaimed Christians, beat, tortured and murdered blacks who actively sought equality with whites, or who came into too close contact with whites. Many millions more white Christians cheered on the campaign of intimidation and terrorism. The story of the Civil Rights movement in Alabama offers a glimpse into the racial war that engulfed the South in the 1950s and 1960s, including the chasm that developed between conservative and progressive white Christians over the issue of Civil Rights.
During the Civil Rights struggle, most white Baptist churches refused to allow blacks into their sanctuaries. Many Baptist colleges, universities and seminaries also resisted integration. On the other hand, some were among the first Baptist institutions to integrate. When the 1964 Civil Rights Act formally brought to an end a long history of racial segregation and inequality in American public life, many Southern white Christians, including Baptists, carried on informal segregation. In addition to barring blacks from their worship services, white conservative Christians birthed the modern private school movement in order to prevent white children from sitting in classrooms with blacks. The story of Mississippi’s private school movement was representative of a widespread white, grassroots Southern effort to keep the races separate in the realm of education. Meanwhile, many Baptist and other Christian colleges and universities began opening their doors to black students, in part a reflection of the progressive element within Christian higher education.
Two more events cemented racism as a core characteristic of the Christian Right’s God. The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, allowing, for the first time, Asians and Africans to immigrate to America, further enraged and motivated the Christian Right. On the heels of the voting rights and immigration acts, Republican Richard Nixon squeaked out a win in the 1968 U.S. presidential contest by deploying a “Southern Strategy” of flipping white southern Democrats to the Republican Party through appeals to the racial fears of the region’s Caucasian voters. Nixon’s strategy furthered the Christian Right’s loyalty to the national Republican Party, while ushering in the modern era of overwhelming African American loyalty to the Democratic Party, and ensuring that black Christians (with very few exceptions) would remain apart from the Christan Right.
Extending beyond race, the new American God’s home front agenda included resistance to a new era of sexual expressions. As feminism emerged and domestic violence became a topic of public conversation in the latter half of the 1960s, religious conservatives in America responded by preaching female subordination and framing marriage as a patriarchal institution designed for child-bearing and child-rearing, while loudly condemning nonmarital sex, divorce, abortion, and homosexuality. Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic Church resisted women’s rights and birth control when Pope John Paul VI–overriding a large number of theologians and cardinals within the Church–nixed widespread calls to dissolve the Catholic prohibition against artificial contraception. Protestant and Catholic women alike by the millions, however, promptly ignored renewed male efforts to repress female freedom and sexuality, setting the stage for a fierce, public battle over sexuality in the decade of the 70s.
As racial and sexual home front battles heated up in the middle and late 1960s, evidenced by the conservative backlash against perceived domestic secularism and liberalism, the new American God remained committed to combating the spread of communism abroad. The Vietnam war, viewed by political and religious conservatives as a godly offensive against Satan, further transformed many American Christians into warmongers while increasingly positioning, in the estimation of many other nations, America as a war-minded, hostile Christian nation. Opposition to the war by a growing progressive Christian movement in America merely served to further galvanize the followers of a racial, patriarchal, communist-hating, capitalistic, nationalist, politically-Republican, Christian Right God.
Within Baptist life North and South, a percolating battle between conservatives and progressives heated up. Among Southern Baptists, ultra-conservatives, fueled by the rapid growth of independent fundamentalist Baptists and angry at the presence of theological and social progressives within convention leadership, forced the passage of a new statement of faith (the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message), resisted progressive calls for racial integration, and increasingly pressured denominational leaders to move rightward. Meanwhile, Southern Baptist growth peaked and began a permanent decline, paralleling the denomination’s escalating conservatism. For now, fundamentalists inside and outside of Southern Baptist life played the role of troublesome gadfly. Signs of all-out impending denominational warfare, however, were all too apparent for knowledgeable observers of Southern Baptist life.
Northward, American Baptists, less evangelistically-oriented than many Baptists and more progressive than their Southern counterparts, proved more open to social and cultural changes, yet experienced significant numerical decline. The denomination lost members both to Northern fundamentalist Baptist congregations and, on the other end, to a popular culture increasingly skeptical that Christian teachings and morality remained either truthful or relative.
Against this backdrop of multi-faceted and escalating religious tensions in America, a new decade approached. The 1970s would prove to be a period of time in which the rising tide of the Christian Right’s American God turned into crashing waves in prelude to a coming conservative religious tsunami in America.
Next Month: Part 5
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.
“Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” written in April 1963 by Baptist Martin Luther King, Jr., elevated political and religious engagement to a new level in the United States. Nearly sixty years later his frank and passionate words are as relevant as ever.
King took the church to task. He wrote: “So here we are moving toward the exit of the twentieth century with a religious community largely adjusted to the status quo, standing as a tail-light behind other community agencies rather than a headlight leading men to higher levels of justice.” His point then was the persistent injustice endured by people of color in the face of laws that restricted their freedoms and rights in a political system that touts “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as core values.
Sixty years later his lament is as strong as ever. No longer “moving toward the exit of the twentieth century,” we, as a nation, are well into the twenty-first century. It seems that the issue of religious “tail-lights” and “headlights” remains nearly as it was. But there is hope. Read on.
On 8 May voters in North Carolina approved a controversial amendment to the state constitution that bans, again, same-sex marriage. “Again,” is important. The Constitution of North Carolina already had a provision that forbids same-sex marriage. Amendment 1 pushed the constitutional language in a more restrictive way, seeking to prevent any semblance of “civil union” and establishing heterosexual marriage as the exclusive definition of adult relationships. Curiously, the ballot language for the amendment did not include the language of the amendment that threatens to harm a variety of heterosexual relationships.
How the ballot read: “Constitutional amendment to provide that marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State.”
How the full text of the amendment reads: “Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State. This section does not prohibit a private party from entering into contracts with another private party; nor does this section prohibit courts from adjudicating the rights of private parties pursuant to such contracts.”
How curious. The full text of the amendment protects the rights of employers who have or will extend benefits to domestic partners, whether gay or straight, but denies rights to those who choose to enter domestic partnerships (so said a North Carolina legislator).
Amendment 1 has wide-ranging implications for basic civil rights. Will the majority overwhelm the rights of the minority? Will an ill-informed voting bloc unwittingly press for a policy that runs contrary to basic freedoms? Will business practices become more important than human rights?
As North Carolina moved toward election day there were predictable responses and some surprises. The “deer-in-the-headlights” responses were dominated by a vicious sermon that bordered on a biblical justification for child abuse if a child showed any stereotypic homosexual tendencies. The “headlights” responses were present, but more often. Admonitions to vote against Amendment 1 overwhelmed FaceBook. The presence of careful resistance to Amendment 1 was epitomized by a statement by Rev. Dr. William Barber, who challenged the media to ask the right questions about the amendment. We will have to wait for some time to glimpse the “tail-lights,” but I am confident that that day will come.
The political and legal issues of rights and marriage will, as Dr. King noted, “bend toward justice.” That arc already is visible. In North Carolina a broad ecumenical coalition of church leaders found new friends as they focused their high beams into the darkness of injustice. If the headlights are bright can the tail-lights be far behind? There is hope.
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).
Recently, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), chairman of the House Budget Committee, released his budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2013. Facing widespread criticism, the influential Republican Congressman went on a media tour to defend the budget. During an interview with David Brody of Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network, Ryan spoke about how his Catholicism meshed with his economic plan. Ryan explained that the budget was created “using my Catholic faith.” The congressman contended that his budget was rooted in Catholic Social Teaching, specifically the Catholic principles of subsidiarity (which he characterized as “federalism”) and solidarity.
A week after Ryan’s CBN interview, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops penned letters to Congress asserting that Ryan’s budget – subsequently passed by the House of Representatives – “fails to meet” the Catholic Church’s moral standards. Rep. Ryan pushed back and made the false claim that the Bishops letter was not representative of all Catholic Bishops in America.
This resulted with a group of prominent Catholic theologians, priests and nuns releasing a harshly-worded statement refuting Ryan’s claims. These Catholic leaders wrote: “Simply put, this budget is morally indefensible and betrays Catholic principles of solidarity, just taxation and a commitment to the common good. A budget that turns its back on the hungry, the elderly and the sick while giving more tax breaks to the wealthiest few can’t be justified in Christian terms.”
Rep. Ryan was dealt a double-whammy less than two-weeks later when nearly 90 Georgetown University professors issued a letter challenging his claim that the budget was based on Catholic principles. These professors wrote: “We would be remiss in our duty to you and our students if we did not challenge your continuing misuse of Catholic teaching to defend a budget plan that decimates food programs for struggling families, radically weakens protections for the elderly and sick, and gives more tax breaks to the wealthiest few.” The hard-hitting letter concluded with a devastating blow: “In short, your budget appears to reflect the values of your favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
To his credit, Ryan did not cower and capitulate. He stood firm by his convictions, stepping into the Jesuit lion’s den of Georgetown University to deliver a previously scheduled lecture (and defend himself) just a few days later. Sounding more Baptist than Catholic, Rep. Ryan – the individual – took to the podium and observed, “I suppose that there are some Catholics who for a long time thought they had a monopoly of sorts not exactly on heaven but on the social teaching of our church. Of course there can be differences among faithful Catholics on this. The work I do as a Catholic holding office conforms to the social doctrine as best I can make of it.”
As a Baptist, I can surely relate to this bit of sectarian drama. What can we take away from this Catholic kerfuffle with regard to the role of faith and politics in public life? First and foremost, this episode provides a lesson in how not to mix politics and religion. Instead of leading and facilitating an important discussion about the actual budget and its potential impact on the poor, Ryan found himself in a theological debate in the political arena. Something is terribly wrong with that picture.
In terms of the necessary and natural mixing of religion and politics, I do not see how it is ever helpful to use faith in a way that conveys that in order to be a “good Baptist” or “good Catholic” that I have to support this or oppose that. This drama was kick-started when Paul Ryan positioned his budget as being distinctly Catholic and consistent with Catholic Social Teaching. Meanwhile, the message implied in the letters issued by Catholic leaders was that Ryan’s budget was anti-Catholic, anti-Christian and anti-Jesus. Can clergy-delivered criticism be more severe than that?
Determining the appropriate role of faith in politics, religion in the public square is tough. I am not sure anyone knows where the “line” is or is not. Certainly using religion in this manner to divide people is not appropriate. And it seems equally inappropriate for an elected official of the stature of Rep. Paul Ryan to start and participate in a public theological debate with religious leaders.
For far too long, the Religious Right has used certain issues to divide Americans on the basis of religion. How can we as Christians bring our faith to the public square in a way that does not have “divide and conquer” as the end goal? How can we be faithful and vocal about our convictions in a way that contributes positively to the furthering of the common good? Let’s start by adopting a new kind of rhetoric that is more civil and less eager to accuse others of being anti-Christian or anti-Jesus.
The 2012 Annual Conference of the Baptist History & Heritage Society will be June 7-9 in Raleigh, North Carolina. The conference will be hosted by the First Baptist Churches of Raleigh in conjunction with Campbell University. Bill Leonard, Glenn Jonas and Fisher Humphreys are the featured keynote speakers.
In addition, the Fellowship of Baptist Historians will meet the afternoon of June 7 prior to the beginning of the Society conference. Tony Cartledge, Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University and a student of Baptist history, is the featured speaker.
To view the full Conference program, see a list of keynote and breakout presenters, access lodging information, and make your reservations, click here. BH&HS members receive discount conference registration through June 1.
“Many Baptist churches I visit are similar to sex shops and bookies. You can’t really look in – the frosted glass and high windows. People need to be able to see and experience us out and about.” Baptist Union of Great Britain President Chris Duffett, speaking at the recent BUGB annual General Assembly. (link)
“”In some ways, our chickens have come home to roost. Churches have talked about needing to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ — what you hear is, ‘I need a relationship, I need to be born again,’ but not,’I need to be involved in a congregation.’ Guess what? That’s where we are.”Dale Jones, a researcher who worked on the the 2012 Religious Congregations and Membership Study, focused on American religion.
“The [Roman Catholic] church naturally wants to protect and preserve the authentic teachings of its institution and does not want to see them undermined. If we are going to be Catholic, it makes sense that we should follow and believe what (the church) says.” Brian Burch, president of the conservative group Catholicvote.org, responding to the Vatican’s crack down on women’s religious communities for straying from official Roman Catholic doctrine.
June 7-9, 2012 – BH&HS Annual Conference, “Baptists and Theology.” Sponsored by the First Baptist Churches of Raleigh and Campbell University. Program information and registration.
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.