An Electronic Baptist Journal Bridging Yesterday and Today
[Vol. 15, No. 2]
Editor: Bruce T. Gourley, executive director, Baptist History and Heritage Society
The Baptist Studies Bulletin (BSB) is a free online journal produced by the Baptist History and 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
“American Evangelical Identity: Conservative Politics”
by Bruce T. Gourley
“Reading the Bible Today: Outside Agitators”
by Mark E. Biddle
Russell T. Cherry Professor of Old Testament
Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond
2016 BH&HS Annual Conference
May 23-25, 2016
Hosted by Baylor University’s Truett Seminary
AMERICAN EVANGELICAL IDENTITY: CONSERVATIVE POLITICS
by Bruce T. Gourley
At what point does a religious group become captive to a dominant culture? When does a given expression of Christianity become so identified with a particular political ideology that it no longer reflects the Christ of the Gospels?
From the politically-driven Council of Nicea in 325 B.C., to the Roman Catholic Church of the Middle Ages, the Protestant Reformers, and the Congregational and Anglican theocracies in the American colonies, too many Christian leaders succumbed to the great temptation of allying with dominant political structures in order to force religion upon the masses through fear, intimidation and death threats.
In the past four centuries some Christian groups, Baptists included, rose above the dominant culture. To the horror of established Christendom, early Baptists of the 17th and 18th centuries rejected coerced religion and demanded equal freedom of conscience and religious liberty for all, their commitment to human freedom leading to the establishment of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
In the early 19th century many Baptists were among Christians of the American North who fostered an ascendant and transformative abolition movement against slavery. At the same time, although many white Baptists of the South prior to 1800 were opposed to slavery, in the centuries following the region’s white Baptists turned away from their gospel convictions of freedom and embraced the dominate southern cultural motif of human enslavement, racial apartheid and hatred. Rescuing Baptists from their cultural captivity fell to the lot of heroic African American Baptists of the Civil Rights era.
Within this historical narrative arose a group of Christians known, at various times, as “evangelicals.”
Although historians of American Christianity sometimes bestow “evangelical” terminology upon 18th century dissenting Baptists and Presbyterians, this newly-coined word was typically associated with religious revivals and rarely used by early Baptists. John Leland, the greatest Baptist evangelist of the late 18th and early 19th centuries and alternately living in the South and North, in his massive Writings invoked “evangelical” only five times, in each instance as another word for “gospel.”
Usage of the term peaked in the 1840s in conjunction with abolitionism, steadily declining thereafter. Bottoming out around the turn of the 20th century, evangelical remained a little used term, albeit with a small bump following the 1942 formation of the white male, theologically fundamentalist, politically conservative National Association of Evangelicals. The NAE positioned evangelical as culturally accommodative. Organization co-founder Carl Henry in The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (1947) called upon fundamentalists (evangelicals) to integrate the Bible into the dominant “political, economic, sociological, and educational realms, local and international.” Led by Billy Graham, evangelicals allied with anti-communist politicians and supported Joseph McCarthy in suppressing Americans’ freedom of conscience in witch hunts against alleged communist sympathizers. Francis Schaeffer in the 1960s emerged as a leading thinker of the movement, pulling evangelicals even further to the right by positing evangelicalism in a “culture war” against secular liberalism.
Even so, it fell to a self-professed, progressive evangelical U.S. president, Jimmy Carter, to truly galvanize the modern evangelical movement. Carter’s presidency in the late 1970s thrust “evangelical” into the public discourse to an extent not seen since the progressive labor movement of the first decade of the century. A long-time then-Southern Baptist Sunday School teacher, Carter and other progressives (a small bloc of evangelicals) focused their faith on human equality, racial justice, poverty and other New Testament gospel themes. Despising Carter’s liberalism, the evangelical majority gelled into the Religious Right, a religious arm of the Republican Party. “I sometimes argue that Jimmy Carter is the last progressive evangelical,” notes Randall Balmer, scholar of modern evangelicalism. Since Carter’s presidency, American evangelicals in each presidential election have overwhelmingly voted for Republican candidates.
American evangelicalism, a largely white, Republican club, remains widely viewed as a religious movement primarily concerned with politics and rarely reflecting Jesus of the Gospels. John Green, professor of politics and religion at the University of Akron, says that while evangelical traditionally was “a religious word,” since Ronald Reagan (who defeated Jimmy Carter for the presidency in 1980) it has “become very strongly associated with Republican and conservative politics.” Greg Smith, Pew Research Center associate director of research, sums up the statistical relationship between evangelicals and politics this way: “White evangelical protestants are some of the most reliably conservative and Republican voters in the electorate.” David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, notes that “there’s a lot of perceptions that the term evangelicals means ‘Christians who vote Republican.’”
Among self-proclaimed evangelicals, Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, posits opposition to political liberalism as evangelical identity. Roger Olson, evangelical professor of theology at Baylor’s Truett Seminary, notes the shifting of evangelicalism since 1980 toward fundamentalism, while excluding progressives. He concedes that “evangelical has come to be closely associated in the popular mind with an ultra-conservative approach to Christianity, one that is harshly judgmental, narrow-minded, inseparably related to conservative politics and backward-looking rather than progressive,” and “synonymous with the Religious Right in many people’s minds.” Echoing Olson, moderate Baptist John Pierce, executive editor of Baptists Today, recently observed that “American Evangelicalism” is “a political movement that simply baptizes hard-right, secular political ideology in some religious varnish.”
Evangelical, of course, remains a more nuanced term than public perceptions often indicate. For example, many African American Christians are technically progressive evangelicals (though few refer to themselves as evangelicals) if one utilizes David Bebbington’s, professor of history at Scotland’s University of Stirling, non-political, Jesus-focused definition of the term. The problem, however, is that most evangelicals are privileged white Christians who project conservative, Republican politics more than Jesus.
Although touting Bebbington’s definition of evangelical, the National Association of Evangelicals focuses primarily on politics, as noted in a 2004 NAE document entitled, “For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility.” The opening words of the “Our Commitment” section reads: “We commit ourselves to support Christians who engage in political and social action in a manner consistent with biblical teachings.” While trumpeted as politically inclusive, the “biblical teachings” advocated by the NAE, apart from “creation care,” echo the conservative political platform of the Republican Party. A wide range of cultural issues are discussed, yet in a politically-conservative context. Blurring the lines between church and state, the document insists that government should legislate and fund conservative biblical teachings that limit full human rights, equality, justice and freedom to certain persons only, and in certain ways.
Richard Cizik, vice-president of the NAE, however, was not among the politically-correct. When Cizik in a 2008 interview noted his openness to marriage equality for homosexuals, the NAE immediately fired him. Cizik is now of the opinion that evangelicalism has “become so subservient to an ideology and to a political party that it needs, as I say, to be born again.”
The NAE is not alone. Other conservative, Republican-dominated evangelical organizations allied with the NEA include Youth for Christ, Campus Crusade (CRU), InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and the Evangelical Theological Society. While sometimes advocating for nonpartisan policies like immigration reform, a stance rejected by many Republican politicians, only about 20% of evangelicals will ever vote Democratic.
Are today’s American evangelicals captive to conservative political culture? Largely so, without question. Can one be an evangelical apart from this political alliance? Certainly, although few in fact are, and Jimmy Carter may be the last.
Mark E. Biddle, Dr.Theol (Zürich), is Russell T. Cherry Professor of Old Testament at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. He has authored six books, ten translations, and more than 150 articles, reviews, and lectures. He is editor of R&E, and of the Reading the Old Testament (Smyth & Helwys) and the Smyth & Helwys commentaries.
In recognition of African American History Month, the BSB presents a blog written by Mark last month in reflection of the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday.
[On] the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, I took the opportunity to re-read Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” his famed “I Have a Dream” speech, and the concluding chapter of his last book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (New York: Harper & Row, 1967). Rather than being an exercise in mere historical reflection, this reading reminded me again of several components of a ‘prophetic pattern.’ Two, in particular, merit attention in an effort to contemplate the significance of King’s work and to consider the challenges of today.
First, as the French proverb says, Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (the more things change, the more they stay the same). Nearly a half-century ago, King addressed circumstances that continue to threaten today. To name but two examples, he warned prophetically that “We must work passionately and indefatigably to bridge the gulf between our scientific progress and our moral progress…When scientific power outruns moral power, we end up with guided missiles and misguided men [sic]” (Where, 171, 172). Of course, King’s warning only updated warnings, explicit and implicit, issued in scripture from the beginning. Human knowledge has outstripped human wisdom since the Garden. We can do many things that we learn too late we ought not to have done: build towers to reach the heavens, manufacture DDT and Thalidomide, construct hydrogen bombs. Commenting on the moral imperative represented by poverty and hunger, King observed that “There is no deficit in human resources; the deficit is in human will” (Where, 177). He deftly alluded here to the major biblical theme concerning the human need for new hearts (Deut 30:6-14; Jer 31:31-34; Matt 5:8; etc.). Until human beings “hunger and thirst for rightness” (Matt 5:6), “seek[ing] first the kingdom of God” (Matt 6:33), true shalom will remain beyond reach. King, like the biblical prophets, spoke about human flaws and human potentials in a specific historical context. Sadly, scientific and social progress have not altered the human propensity to exploit the poor (cf. Amos 2:6-8), or to rely on military strength (Zech 4:6), or to put ultimate trust in penultimate objects (Jer 7). We may drive automobiles instead of riding donkeys, but our hearts await renewal. Progress means that it is possible to rain destruction on cities while sitting at a computer console thousands of miles away. Congratulations, humanity – we are eight year olds with new Harleys.
Second, from the beginning of his work, critics accused King of being an “outside agitator,” a term certainly more polite than the expressions often used of him in the South at the time. The attitude that calls for change equate with “troublemaking” stood behind accusations that opponents of the Vietnam War were communist sympathizers, and that those who disagreed with the actions of the US in the Persian Gulf were somehow unpatriotic. It seethes in the jingoistic anthem “America, Love it or Leave it.” It fundamentally mistakes yearning and working for improvement to be disdain and disloyalty. It is idolatry and it is not new.
The prophet Amos preached against Samaria’s elite for abusing the poor (5:11; 6:1-8; etc.) and against Samaria’s royal house for apostasy (4:4; 5:5; etc.). The religious representative of King Jeroboam, the priest Amaziah, seizing upon the fact that Amos was a Judean, a southerner come north to preach, accused him of being an “outside agitator” and enjoined him to stop preaching at Bethel. “It is the king’s sanctuary, it is a temple of the kingdom,” Amaziah said (7:13). A few decades later, Micah, a country preacher from Moresheth (1:1) warned that Samaria’s sins had infected Jerusalem (1:5, 9) and predicted that, unless changes were made, Jerusalem/Zion would become “a plowed field…a heap of ruins” (3:12). Like Amos, Micah met with opposition: “Do not preach….one should not preach such things” (2:6). Almost two centuries later, Jeremiah announced that the temple in Jerusalem faced the fate of the earlier sanctuary at Shiloh (7:12; 26:6) – unless the Judeans changed “their ways and doings” (7:5-7; 26:13). The priests and the prophets who heard Jeremiah’s message clamored for his execution “because he has prophesied against this city” (26:11). The deliberations that ensued involved every segment of Judean society: priests, prophets, princes, the people, and the “elders of the land.” Although Jeremiah would subsequently be imprisoned for periods, and once be thrown down into a cistern and left to die, cooler heads, citing Micah as a precedent, prevailed in the deliberations.
Five centuries later, Jesus entered the temple to find the moneychangers hard at work. Combining citations from Jeremiah’s sermon that nearly cost his life (7:11) and a passage from Isaiah (56:7) as justification, Jesus overturned the moneychangers’ tables and chased them from the temple. On at least one other occasion, Jesus similarly combined a reference to the coming destruction of the Jerusalem temple in the Jewish Wars (70 CE) and a veiled allusion to his own coming death and resurrection when he spoke about rebuilding the destroyed temple in three days (Mark 14:58; cf. Luke 21:5-6; John 2:19). According to Matt 26:61 (cf. Mk 15:29), Jesus’ attitude toward the temple became the basis for the charges against him that resulted in his crucifixion.
Patterns: change in circumstance without change in substance. Two thousand years later, a group of eight Alabama clergymen wrote an open letter, published in Birmingham area newspapers, leveling the charge “outside agitator” against King.
An hour north of Birmingham, I was watching television when a news bulletin interrupted programming with the announcement that Martin Luther King had been assassinated. By that time in my young life, I had begun to wonder how the messages about “One God, one Lord, one baptism,” “in Christ there is neither slave nor free,” and “for God so loved the world that whosoever” that I was hearing could possibly be reconciled with the racial attitudes of many of the white southerners preaching and hearing those messages. “Where was the church when children of God were being treated as though they were sub-human?” I had begun to ask. “What is the call to peacemaking if not a call to throw off complacency and to disturb the status quo?”
Patterns. Years later, I have been formulating the theory that one of the problems confronting the church today has roots in the behavior of the church during King’s lifetime. I theorize that people my age and younger have asked themselves why the Gospel of God’s love expressed in Jesus Christ failed to convert the church of my youth into an “agitator” for justice. Was it that the Gospel lacked the power to do so, or that the church failed to heed the Gospel? Neither answer soothes. King saw this conundrum coming, too, as the following passage from his “Letter” attests:
There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man [sic]. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust. (“Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr., 16 April 1963.)
Can the church recover its authentic voice of prophetic witness? Can it agitate for true peace and real justice? It must. God’s call has not changed.
Mark Biddle blogs at Mostly on the Bible, where this article was originally published.
A wide range of Baptist historians contributed chapters to this indispensable volume under the superb editorship of Mike Williams of Dallas Baptist University.
From the publisher’s website: “Baptists lack a single central figure in their origins that Lutherans, Reformed, Presbyterians, and Methodists have with Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, and John Wesley. Additionally, Baptists focus so heavily on the Bible for authority and key beliefs or practices like religious liberty, social justice, missions, and preaching that sometimes Baptists and other Christians forget the significant role that people play in forging and promoting those ideas and practices. This book seeks to address this shortcoming by providing an introductory text of Baptist biographies. Certainly shorter than a full-length biography but definitely longer than an encyclopedia article, this sampling of key Baptist leaders through the years view the story of Baptists through a biographical lens while linking these women and men to a key Baptist distinctive. A short suggested reading list is added at the end of each chapter to enhance further study. Highlighted Baptist leaders include: Thomas Helwys, John Clarke, Benjamin Keach, Anne Dutton, Shubal Stearns, Isaac Backus, Dan Taylor, Andrew Fuller, John Leland, William Carey, Lott Carey, Adoniram Judson, J. Gerhard Oncken, I. T. Tichenor, Robert Cooke Buckner, Charles H. Spurgeon, Lottie Moon, E. C. Morris, E. Y. Mullins, Walter Rauschenbusch, Helen Barrett Montgomery, George W. Truett, William Owen Carver, James Henry Rushbrooke, Nannie Helen Burroughs, B. B. McKinney, Thomas Buford Maston, Herschel H. Hobbs, Henlee Barnette, and Gardner C. Taylor.”
Baptist Mountain Mission Schools
Mars Hill University Press, 2016
by Charles W. Deweese
Order Your Copy
From the publisher’s website: “Mars Hill University, situated in the hills of western North Carolina, stands out as a premier contribution to the [past,] present and future of innovative higher education. This book presents a pivotal slice of the Mars Hill story.”
Charles W. Deweese is former executive director of the Baptist History and Heritage Society.
Held in conjunction with the National Association of Baptist Professors of Religion (NABPR) and the Association of Librarians and Archivists at Baptist Institutions (ALABI), the theme of the 2016 BH&HS Conference is “Perspectives in Baptist History and Identity.”
Speakers and presenters will collectively represent a wide spectrum of Baptist life.
Registration is now open online. The $95 fee covers BH&HS, NABPR and ALABI conference events, including three meals.
For more information about the conference, click here.
FEBRUARY 2016 — Martha Stearns Marshall Month of Preaching, from Baptist Women in Ministry. More information.
March 12, 2016 — “Baptists and Jews for Over Four Centuries,” Centre for Baptist History and Heritage, Oxford, with the Baptist Historical Society and the German Baptist Historical Society. Regents Park College, Oxford. For more information contact Paul Fiddes at email@example.com.
March 18, 2016 — Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of NC (CBFNC) Annual Gathering. Hayes Barton Baptist Church, Raleigh. Click here for more information.
April 15-16, 2016 — Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Georgia spring General Assembly. Smoke Rise Baptist Church, Stone Mountain. Click here for more information.
May 23-25, 2016 — Annual conference of the Baptist History and Heritage Society, hosted by Baylor University and Truett Seminary in Waco, Texas. The conference will be held in conjunction with the National Association of Baptist Professors of Religion (NABPR) and the Association of Librarians and Archivists at Baptist Institutions (ALABI). The theme is “Perspectives in Baptist History and Identity.” Click here for more information.
July 4-9, 2016 — Baptist World Alliance Annual Gathering. Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Click here for more information.
July 9-16, 2016 — Nurturing Faith Experience in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, co-hosted by Baptist History and Heritage Society and Baptists Today. Email Bruce Gourley for more information.
OCTOBER 2016 — Baptist History and Heritage Month, from the Baptist History and Heritage Society. More information.