Is the Southern Baptist Convention – the supreme and arguably strongest Protestant denomination in the United States – being held collectively by culture wars in its put of Biblical instructing? That is the inquire in most up-to-date weeks, as thousands of Southern Baptists gathered in Nashville for his or her annual assembly to establish the bitterly contested future of the conference.
Many conservative contributors of the denomination appear to admire viewed in Donald Trump’s populist authoritarianism a final-gasp likelihood to construct white Christian The United States – theology, and, for Trump, Christian morality, be damned.
I am a historian of evangelical Christianity and admire written broadly on Southern Baptists. Though no longer Southern Baptist myself, over the past 20 years I genuinely admire on the total defended them as being pondering about theology, at the same time as that theology is on the total fashioned in allotment by cultural issues. By 2020, I had almost about imagine that conservatives of the lawful hover of the SBC were no longer precise subordinating theology to the cultural issues of white Christian identity politics, however had really lost their procedure as Baptists.
Essentially the most striking example of this is Al Mohler. Mohler is the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and arguably the Southern Baptist community’s leading mental. In some unspecified time in the future of the 2016 election, Mohler grow to be as soon as a by no manner-Trumper, pronouncing the candidate grow to be as soon as “below the baseline level of human decency” that Christians could perhaps well accumulate and vote for. His comments couldn’t admire been more forceful. Mohler grow to be as soon as struggling with what appeared as if it might perhaps perhaps be a shedding battle: in 2016, Trump grow to be as soon as elected with the enhance of spherical 80% of white evangelical voters and the endorsement of one of the most SBC’s strongest and revered conservative leaders, in conjunction with Robert Jeffress, Franklin Graham, Jack Graham and others.
But by 2020, even Mohler had near spherical to endorse Trump’s re-election. He said he changed his tips due to the Trump’s judicial appointees and the prospect of ending abortion on search info from, however others noticed it otherwise. Jonathan Merritt of the Atlantic speculated that Mohler grow to be as soon as supporting Trump because he wished to be president of the Southern Baptist Convention, which would abet because the crowning achievement of his profession. No matter whether or no longer one accepts Merritt’s review of Mohler’s motives, it looked easy that if Mohler had remained the face of opposition to Trump it might perhaps perhaps perhaps well admire been sophisticated if no longer no longer attainable to hold the SBC presidency. No one hoping to be president of the SBC could perhaps well be viewed as an opponent of the things Trump stands for in the eyes of white evangelicals – Christian nationalism, white Protestant The United States, non secular liberty, restriction of immigration, restriction of abortion, and so on.
Then an piquant thing took place on the SBC annual assembly final week. The ultraconservative, avowedly pro-Trump candidate, Mike Stone, and the centrist candidate calling for the SBC to step again from cultural war and be conscious of evangelism, missions, and racial justice, Ed Litton, finished in the principle two areas and went to a runoff; Mohler finished a distant third. Mohler’s mental culture-war procedure can admire proved too elitist for a denomination, and a nation, now riven with populism. Or folks on either facet merely viewed him as having lost his lawful authority because of his flip-flop from by no manner-Trump to pro-Trump.
The much less political candidate, Litton, triumphed in the runoff, turning into SBC president by a dramatically slender victory. He defeated Stone by a mere 556 votes, out of some 14,000. Southern Baptists who want a much less partisan exclaim in the culture, autonomous of the Republican birthday celebration, received this spherical, however this doesn’t indicate that the SBC has fully turned a corner.
The division between that faction and the more explicitly rightwing, pro-Trump faction runs deep, though it’s no longer genuinely about theology. All facets are conservative and orthodox on the core issues of evangelical Christianity: that Christ appeared on earth as God in the flesh; that He grow to be as soon as crucified, died, and grow to be as soon as buried for the forgiveness of sins; that He literally rose from the slow and ascended to heaven, where He reigns with God the Father; and that He’ll near all over again in a sleek 2nd Coming. All facets additionally oppose homosexual marriage and enhance wifely submission and a ban on ladies pastors, and imagine in an “inerrant Bible”, even supposing they disagree on easy how to apply its instructing to culture. As outgoing SBC president JD Greear argued in his farewell sermon final week, the differences between the two facets are no longer theological. Rather, it’s culture, and culture war, the complete procedure down.
One facet, the facet that has lickety-split regained administration of the SBC, needs to focal point on evangelism and mission work. They favor to “present a eye” on positions corresponding to abortion and homosexual marriage however additionally on injustices linked to urge, gender, immigration and poverty that slash to the Bible and now to now not a explicit political birthday celebration.
The different facet, the facet that lost final week, needs to be more political, more explicitly aligned with the Trump-period Republican birthday celebration, and aggressively prosecute the culture wars. They’re motivated, I imagine, by an inordinate wretchedness of being out of step with the Republican birthday celebration’s brand of white identity politics – and its de facto chief, Trump. They imagine white Christian The United States is embattled and surrounded by a adversarial secular-liberal culture. Their easiest likelihood of survival, they imagine, is to accept as true with aligned with the Republican birthday celebration against a radical left that threatens the Christian faith’s very existence in The United States and whose ideologies are seeping into the SBC, as Mike Stone charges. As he said as he equipped for his urge on the SBC presidency: “Our Lord isn’t woke.”
Historically, critics of conservative Southern Baptist leaders admire argued that SBC conservatives are no longer genuinely as Biblically-motivated as they claim, and that theology is a roughly ruse for a cultural and political program – that they effectively tricked folks into believing they were genuinely interested by the Bible when it grow to be as soon as abortion, the instructing of evolution in colleges, prayer in colleges, gender issues in marriage and ministry, and so on that made up their genuine issues. Conservatives resented this charge, however it now an increasing selection of feels be pleased an precise summation of the command of rightwing Southern Baptist politicking.
Sadly for evangelical Christianity, the trend forward for the SBC potentially relies more on the trend forward for the Republican birthday celebration than on theology or matters inside to the denomination. Having run themselves to the Birthday celebration in the 1980s, the SBC is finding it sophisticated to extricate itself from the clutches of rightwing culture war – the efforts of outgoing president Greear and incoming president Litton however. As Greear build it in his outgoing address: “When the church will get in bed with politics, the church will get pregnant, and the offspring does now not witness be pleased our Father in heaven.” This needs to be a cautionary yarn for other evangelicals.
Barry Hankins is a professor of history at Baylor College, where he is chair of the division of history. He is the author of a gigantic quantity of books on evangelical Christianity in The United States