The Baptist Apocalypse

Such a God might, for instance, offer political success as a temptation rather than a reward — or use an unexpected presidency not to save Americans but to chastise them.

.. so far the Trump presidency has clearly been a kind of apocalypse — not (yet) in the “world-historical calamity” sense of the word, but in the original Greek meaning: an unveiling, an uncovering, an exposure of truths that had heretofore been hidden.

.. That exposure came first for the Republican Party’s establishment, who were revealed as something uncomfortably close to liberal caricature in their mix of weakness, cynicism and power worship. It came next for the technocrats and the data nerds of the Democratic Party, who were revealed as ineffectual, clueless and self-regarding ..

.. And then it came for a range of celebrated media men, from Harvey Weinstein to Matt Lauer ..

.. It has come as well for figures whose style anticipated him (Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, that whole ménage) and for figures who have deliberately attached themselves to his populist revolt. The sins of Roy Moore were more exposed by the Trump era, and now likewise the racist paranoia of Roseanne Barr.

.. a similar moral exposure has come to precisely the sector of American Christianity where support for Donald Trump ran strongest — the denominational heart of conservative evangelicalism, the Southern Baptist Convention.

.. The main case is Paige Patterson, the now-erstwhile president of a major Baptist seminary in Fort Worth, who was eased into retirement over revelations that he’d counseled abused women to return to their husbands and allegedly shamed and silenced at least one rape victim.

.. Patterson is a beginning, not an end.

.. Late last year I wrote an essay speculating about the possibility of an “evangelical crisis” in this era, driven by the gap between the older and strongly pro-Trump constituency in evangelical churches and those evangelicals, often younger, who either voted for the president reluctantly or rejected his brand of politics outright.

.. “the big story behind the story of Patterson’s fall is a high-stakes showdown between two generations of Southern Baptist leaders.” Both generations are theologically conservative, but the figures raising their voices against Patterson have been — generally — associated with a vision of their church that’s more countercultural, less wedded to the institutional Republican Party, more likely to see racial reconciliation as essential to the Baptist future and intent on proving that a traditional theology of sex need not lead to sexism.

.. Whereas Patterson’s defenders represent — again, to generalize — the more pro-Trump old guard in the Baptist world, with a strong inclination toward various forms of chauvinism and Christian nationalism.

.. It is not a coincidence that Russell Moore, perhaps the most prominent anti-Trump Baptist, provided early support to Patterson’s critics — while Robert Jeffress, whose Dallas church sets “Make America Great Again” to music, labeled the calls for Patterson’s resignation a “witch hunt.”

.. it’s wiser to regard an era of exposure like this one as a test, which can be passed but also failed. A discredited “old guard” doesn’t automatically lose power; a chauvinism revealed doesn’t just evaporate. And the temptation to dismiss discomfiting revelations as fake news, to retreat back into ignorance and self-justification, is at least as powerful as the impulse to really reckon with the truth.

.. So the question posed by this age of revelation is simple: Now that you know something new and troubling and even terrible about your leaders or your institutions, what will you do with this knowledge?

Pastors, Not Politicians, Turned Dixie Republican

“White Democrats will desert their party in droves the minute it becomes a black party.”

Kevin Phillips, The Emerging Republican Majority, 1969

Thirty years ago, archconservative Rick Perry was a Democrat and liberal icon Elizabeth Warren was a Republican. Back then there were a few Republican Congressmen and Senators from Southern states, but state and local politics in the South was still dominated by Democrats. By 2014 that had changed entirely as the last of the Deep South states completed their transition from single-party Democratic rule to single party rule under Republicans.

.. Analysts often explain the great exodus of Southern conservatives from the Democratic Party by referencing the Southern Strategy, a cynical campaign ploy supposedly executed by Richard Nixon in his ’68 and ’72 Presidential campaigns, but that explanation falls flat. Though the Southern backlash against the Civil Rights Acts showed up immediately at the top of the ticket, Republicans farther down the ballot gained very little ground in the South between ’68 and ’84. Democrats there occasionally chose Republican candidates for positions in Washington, but they stuck with Democrats for local offices.

.. Crediting the Nixon campaign with the flight of Southern conservatives from the Democratic Party dismisses the role Southerners themselves played in that transformation. In fact, Republicans had very little organizational infrastructure on the ground in the South before 1980

.. The flight of the Dixiecrats was ultimately conceived, planned, and executed by Southerners themselves, largely independent of, and sometimes at odds with, existing Republican leadership. It was a move that had less to do with politicos than with pastors.

.. Southern churches, warped by generations of theological evolution necessary to accommodate slavery and segregation, were all too willing to offer their political assistance to a white nationalist program.

.. Forget about Goldwater, Nixon or Reagan. No one played as much of a role in turning the South red as the leaders of the Southern Baptist Church.

.. When you’ve lost the ability to mobilize supporters based on race, religion will serve as a capable proxy.

.. What was lost under the banner of “segregation forever” has been tenuously preserved through a continuing “culture war.”

.. Religion is endlessly pliable. So long as pastors or priests (or in this case, televangelists) are willing to apply their theological creativity to serve political demands, religious institutions can be bent to advance any policy goal.

.. The Southern Baptist Church was organized specifically to protect slavery and white supremacy from the influence of their brethren in the North, a role that has never ceased to distort its identity, beliefs and practices.

.. In a passage that managed to avoid explicit racism, he described what would become the primary political weapon of the culture wars:

Don’t force me by law, by statute, by Supreme Court decision…to cross over in those intimate things where I don’t want to go. Let me build my life. Let me have my church. Let me have my school. Let me have my friends. Let me have my home. Let me have my family. And what you give to me, give to every man in America and keep it like our glorious forefathers made – a land of the free and the home of the brave.

.. Long after the battle over whites’ only bathrooms had been lost, evangelical communities in Houston or Charlotte can continue the war over a “bathroom bill” using a rhetorical structure Criswell and others built.

.. He had constructed a strangely circular, quasi-libertarian argument in which a right to oppress others becomes a fundamental right born of a religious imperative, protected by the First Amendment.

.. A generation later you might hear Southern Baptists mention that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a Baptist minister. They are less likely to explain that King was not permitted to worship in a Southern Baptist Church. African-American Baptists had their own parallel institutions, a structure that continues today.

.. However, in public Graham was careful to keep a safe distance and avoided the kind of open displays of sympathy for civil rights that might have complicated his career.

.. King was once invited to speak at a Southern Baptist seminary in Louisville in 1961. Churches responded with a powerful backlash, slashing the seminary’s donations so steeply that it was forced to apologize for the move. Henlee Barnette, the Baptist professor responsible for King’s invitation at the seminary, nearly lost his job and became something of an outcast, a status he would retain until he was finally pressured to retire from teaching in 1977.

.. In 1967, Mississippi began offering tuition grants to white students allowing them to attend private segregated schools.

.. Battles over the status of these institutions reached a climax when the Carter Administration in 1978 signaled its intention to press for their desegregation.

.. Televangelist Jerry Falwell would unite with a broader group of politically connected conservatives to form the Moral Majority in 1979. His partner in the effort, Paul Weyrich, made clear that it was the schools issue that launched the organization, an emphasis reflected in chain events across the 1980 Presidential campaign.

.. The Southern Baptist Convention expressed support for laws liberalizing abortion access in 1971. Criswell himself expressed support for the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe, taking the traditional theological position that life began at birth, not conception. The denomination did not adopt a firm pro-life stance until 1980.

.. In August of 1980, Criswell and other Southern Baptist leaders hosted Republican Presidential candidate Ronald Reagan for a rally in Dallas. Reagan in his speech never used the word “abortion,” but he enthusiastically and explicitly supported the ministers’ position on protecting private religious schools. That was what they needed to hear.

.. The new President would not forget their support. Less than a year into his Administration, Reagan officials pressed the IRS to drop its campaign to desegregate private schools.

.. in 1981, Reagan advisor Lee Atwater let down his guard, laying bare the racial logic behind the Republican campaigns in the South:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “N…r, n…r, n…r.” By 1968 you can’t say “n…r”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N…r, n…r.”

For decades, men like Atwater had been searching for the perfect “abstract” phrasing, a magic political dog whistle that could communicate that “N…r, n…r” message behind a veneer of respectable language.

.. It was religious leaders in the South who solved the puzzle on Republicans’ behalf, converting white angst over lost cultural supremacy into a fresh language of piety and “religious liberty.”

.. By the late 80’s religious activists like Stephen Hotze in Houston were beginning to cut out the middleman, going around pastors to recruit political warriors in the pews. Hotze circulated a professionally rendered video in 1990, called “Restoring America,”that included step-by-step instructions for taking control of Republican precinct and county organizations. Religious nationalists began to purge traditional Republicans from the region’s few GOP institutions.

.. A young Texas legislator, Rick Perry, spent much of 1988 campaigning for his fellow Southern Democrat, Al Gore.

.. Moore criticized those who stirred up hatred against refugees and ignored matters of racial justice. He drew sharp criticism when he denounced the Confederate Flag, explaining, “The cross and the Confederate flag cannot co-exist without one setting the other on fire.”

.. Moore drew the obvious comparison last year between Trump and Bill Clinton

..  As religious leaders lined up solidly behind Trump last fall, Moore commented, “The religious right turns out to be the people the religious right warned us about.”

.. In the end, evangelical voters backed Donald Trump by a steeper margin than their support for Romney in ‘12.

.. Today, W.A. Criswell’s Dallas megachurch is pastored by Robert Jeffress

.. Billy Graham’s son, Franklin, retooled the ministry he inherited, turning it into something a civil rights era segregationist could love without reservation. Graham, who earns more than $800,000 a year as the head of his inherited charity, has made anti-Muslim rhetoric a centerpiece of his public profile and ministry.

.. Graham explained that black people can solve the problem of police violence if they teach their children “respect for authority and obedience.”

..  For Jeffress, the heir to W.A. Criswell’s pulpit, to champion an effort to silence Moore, reflects the powerful persistence of an unacknowledged past. After being pressed into an apology for his “unnecessarily harsh” criticisms, Moore has been allowed to keep his job – for now.

.. Public perception that a “Southern strategy” conceived and initiated by clever Republicans turned the South red is worse than false. By deflecting responsibility onto some shadowy “other” it blocks us from reckoning with the past or changing our future.

.. A refusal to honestly confront our past leaves us to repeat our mistakes over and over again.

.. Texas House member Rick Perry was taking a chance in 1989, when he decided to leave the Democratic Party to become a Republican. He leaned heavily on the emerging religious right and their campaign to convert the state’s Democratic majority. His efforts were richly rewarded. Baptist mega-pastor Robert Jeffress was a major supporter along with other evangelical leaders. Now Perry, after becoming the longest-serving governor in Texas history, sits in Donald Trump’s cabinet as the Secretary of Energy.

 

Criticism Of The Nashville Statement

The main criticism I’ve seen is that the statement wasn’t broad enough. It said nothing about divorce, pornography, unnatural sexual practices within marriage, and things like that. The complaint is that the statement singled out SOGI (sexual orientation and gender identity) for special criticism, when the truth is, Christian witness and discipleship is threatened by many other sexual sins. In sum, the Nashville Statement, the criticism goes, failed to repudiate the Sexual Revolution.

.. Do people really think that Wayne Grudem, John Piper, Al Mohler, and Russell Moore (among other signatories) are okay with pornography, no-fault divorce, and the rest? Come on.

.. First off, some of the sexual stuff doesn’t need saying. For example, no serious Evangelical theologian believes that porn is okay.

.. More broadly, SOGI poses a more radical challenge to orthodox Christianity than the other things do. Most of these other practices are in some way perversions of a norm, but not a denial of it. Leaving aside direct Scriptural prohibitions of same-sex conduct, SOGI in essence denies the sexual complementarity and gender essentialism intrinsic to Christian anthropology.

.. Now, Catholic critics who have pointed out that the acceptance of contraception is at the root of so much sexual disorder among Christians have a point. There are other questions having to do with the metaphysics of modernity that ought

.. Now, practically speaking, it is certainly true that far more Christian lives, marriages, and families are ruined by easy divorce, porn, and the rest. It’s wrong for heterosexual Christians to pluck the speck out of LGBT eyes, while ignoring the log in our own.

The Nashville Statement Is an Attack on L.G.B.T. Christians

The Nashville Statement, released by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood on Tuesday, says that only heterosexuality is permissible, calls people born with intersex conditions “disordered,” derides transgender identities as “transgenderism” and makes clear that anyone who is an L.G.B.T. person is immoral.

.. The statement can’t be written off as the regressive stance of a fringe group: More than 150 influential conservative evangelical leaders, half of whom belong to the Southern Baptist Convention, signed the statement. Steve Gaines, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, and James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family and member of Donald Trump’s faith advisory board, endorsed it. Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s public policy arm, also signed on. Presidents of seminaries, editors and writers at the largest conservative publications, as well as presidents and directors of conservative think tanks added their names.

.. L.G.B.T. youths have disproportionately high rates of suicide and of anxiety and depression — problems that are undoubtedly worsened by the condemnation of those who hold beliefs like the ones in the Nashville Statement. Those whose families reject them, most of whom are from religious backgrounds, are 8.4 times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers. L.G.B.T. youths also suffer from high rates of homelessness. Because of conservative churches’ teachings about sexuality, some parents prefer their L.G.B.T. children sleep on the streets instead of in their homes.

.. Evangelicals’ promotion of “reparative therapy” that tries to change L.G.B.T. people’s sexual orientation or gender identity, which has been condemned by every major medical organization, has also brought harm and death.

.. More broadly, the type of theology underlying the Nashville Statement is used to defend the denial of goods and services to same-sex couples. The political power evangelicals hold in the United States allows them to codify their beliefs in law.