BALTIMORE (RNS) With the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Baltimore this week (June 10-11), objective analysis of the SBC’s achievements and challenges is elusive.

Thousands of Southern Baptist Convention delegates met in Baltimore on June 10, 2014, for their annual conference. Photo by Van Payne via Baptist Press

Thousands of Southern Baptist Convention delegates met in Baltimore on June 10, 2014, for their annual conference. Photo by Van Payne via Baptist Press

Convention insiders see their world through particularly rose-colored glasses, preferring a version of their own history that is selective, if not outright revisionist. They have slick, high-tech public relations operations, but their Baptist Press lacks editorial independence. Dissent is discouraged and sometimes forbidden, and SBC communications read like self-congratulatory commercials.

Opponents fare no better in assessing Baptist life. The SBC has many detractors, including liberals, gays and ex-Baptists. These critics often exhibit a visceral loathing of the SBC, making analysis and even conversation impossible.

My experience with Southern Baptists falls between these extremes. Long sympathetic to the moderates who were systematically forced out of positions of leadership and influence a generation ago, I assumed the worst: SBC leaders must be anti-intellectual, homophobic and possibly even racist authoritarians who cared mostly about their own power.

Then I got to know some of them.

I found these gentlemen to be thoughtful, kind and good-humored pastors, teachers and advocates. Their ideological commitments stem from conviction, not from animus. There was indeed a great battle in the 1980s, and their side won. To the victors go the spoils, as they say.

A generation after the “Conservative Resurgence,” the SBC has capitalized on its remarkable unity. While there remains considerable variation in local congregations, the institutional SBC is as streamlined, efficient and focused as ever.

This is not to say there are no matters of controversy, but the nature and scope of disagreements make doctrinal and ideological cohesion — not infighting — hallmarks of today’s Southern Baptist Convention.

The best-known and most public debate concerns the doctrines of Reformed theology (Calvinism), which a growing number of the SBC’s most influential figures now embrace.  SBC leaders are pleased that the convention is having a robust debate about the doctrines of salvation and not, like many other Protestant bodies, about same-sex marriage and LGBT issues. Some reports about the SBC’s shift in tone on the culture wars imply that a change in substance may also be afoot. But there is no evidence that the SBC is opening the door to accepting homosexuality.

Last month, a Southern Baptist congregation in California affirmed same-sex relationships. If and when state and national Baptist bodies move to expel that congregation, it will be a strong signal to other pastors and churches: Homosexuality is not up for debate.

Southern Baptist laypeople have not accepted homosexuality as quickly as the general public, but they face strong and compelling impulses to reconsider their religious opposition — from the broader culture and from their own experiences with gay co-workers, neighbors and relatives who do not seem like especially vile sinners living in defiant rebellion against God.

The SBC is committed to meeting these objections with clear reminders that homosexuality is non-negotiable. Baptist leaders are fully prepared to part company with insufficiently “convictional” Christians who, they say, have themselves parted company with the clear teaching of Scripture and 2,000 years of church tradition.

For a denomination founded (in 1845) on support for human slavery and with a less-than-stellar civil rights record, the SBC has made significant strides in race relations. The Rev. Fred Luter of New Orleans is finishing a two-year stint as the convention’s first black president. Unfortunately, Southern Baptists missed an opportunity to condemn the recent voter suppression efforts in many states where they wield significant influence. Their silence sends a signal.

In the political arena, the Rev. Russell Moore has impressed many in his first year as president of the convention’s public policy arm, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Moore, the Southern Baptists’ most visible spokesman, has brought focus and a winsome tone to Baptists’ legal and legislative advocacy with his mantra of “convictional kindness.”

With its religious liberty implications, Moore’s top priority has been Hobby Lobby’s challenge to the federal government’s contraceptive mandate. He has also, of course, emphasized traditional marriage and protecting unborn human life. Yet the ERLC has also lobbied on behalf of immigration reform and against gambling and payday lending.

In the realm of human sexuality, many SBC activists have found increasing common ground with Roman Catholics, profiting from their engagement with elements of the Catholic intellectual tradition. Of course, these strident Republican partisans whose denomination was forged in deafness to justice in support of an economic regime oppose or ignore Christian teaching on economic issues.

To be sure, the SBC faces many challenges. Declining baptism and membership figures raise questions about mission and strategy. An increasingly secular culture may mean that it is more “costly” for Baptists to live “biblically,” even in the South. Leaders are already encouraging members to reconsider egalitarian family structures, artificial contraception and even public schools.

Jacob Lupfer is a frequent commentator on religion and American public life.

Jacob Lupfer is a frequent commentator on religion and American public life.

Fascinating questions remain concerning leadership, political posture and diversity. The SBC remains a spiritual home for nearly 16 million Americans. Its place in the scope of Baptist history, in GOP politics and in the broader context of American evangelicalism will be worth watching for many years to come. Whether I agree or disagree with Southern Baptists (and I’ve done  both), I wish them well.

(Jacob Lupfer is a frequent commentator on religion and American public life. A Ph.D. candidate in political science at Georgetown, Lupfer is writing a dissertation on religious elites in politics. His website is www.jacoblupfer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jlupf.)

KRE/MG END LUPFER

40 Comments

  1. Those of us who were Southern Baptist during the Takeover remember the foundational teachings of our church changed completely overnight. What had been wrong was now right, what had been right was now wrong. Either the preachers had been lying to us before or they were lying to us now. At the end of the day it did not matter which was the lie and which was the truth. Like the wife of a philandering husband, all that matter was that we’d been lied to. We would never trust them again.

  2. “Their ideological commitments stem from conviction, not from animus. There was indeed a great battle in the 1980s, and their side won. To the victors go the spoils, as they say.”

    And of course, might makes right?! As another PTSD survivor of the Takeover, I saw firsthand that their “convictions” were lived out in vicious, ungodly attacks on those they deemed heretical.

    • I watched the takeover from the outside. The historical, documented facts are that the vicious, ungodly attacks were not from the conservatives, but from the liberal members. For instances, those hanging Dr. Albert Mohler’s effigy from trees on the seminary campus.

      Furthermore, if by “might”, “might makes right”, you mean the grassroots efforts of the individual, local churches to send delegates to the convention to elect seminary trustees that reflect their views and doctrinal beliefs? Then yes, absolutely. The might of the individual church to act on their beliefs absolutely makes right.

      • Scott. I was attending a SBC seminary between 1979-82. it was not the “liberals” (I never met one among my professors) who said they were “going for the jugular.” And I don’t recall Albert Mohler as a major player in those days at all. I think he was one of the many “waiting in the wings” for placement following the take over.

  3. I find it hard to swallow when you say
    “Unfortunately, Southern Baptists missed an opportunity to condemn the recent voter suppression efforts in many states where they wield significant influence. Their silence sends a signal.”

    Having grown up in the South, and having grown up a Southern Baptist, and a PK at that, it seems to me that you’ve not been a product of the political atmosphere of the Deep South in the 80s and 90s.

    There was (and is) a need for Voter Identification, if that is to what you are referring. Chicago-style politics had made its way to portions of the Deep South, and the need for TRUE identification of voters (due to illegal immigration, false voters casting votes, etc) became utmost in the effort to maintain the “one man – one vote” principal so dear to the American Way.

    Your attempt to characterize the fact that the state provides (free of charge) an authorized ID for any eligible voter who doesn’t have any other accepted photo ID (of which there are MANY) as voter suppression is ludicrous! And the attempt to smear the convention’s silence on the matter as further signs of racial suppression on the part of the convention is further proof of your prejudice against the convention and its leaders.

    As a matter of fact, several black Democrats in my area of Alabama have stated that they believe the voter ID law is a GOOD thing, and that it will eventually protect their communities from eventually having their voting block minimized by the influx of Hispanics (both legal and illegal) into this region.

    • Phillip you are either a fool or completely dishonest.

      Voter ID laws are a deliberate attempt to limit the ability of typically Democrat voters among the poor and elderly. They have been documented to cause a about a 3% drop in the voting for such groups. The actual incidents of voter fraud were so infinitesimal that they cannot possibly be a legitimate justification for what is a clear attack on voting rights of a significant number of citizens
      http://www.brennancenter.org/issues/voter-fraud
      The effects of such laws can be viewed as nothing but conservative efforts at voter suppression.

      “Royal Masset, the former political director for the Republican Party of Texas, concisely tied all of these strands together in a 2007 Houston Chronicle article concerning a highly controversial battle over photo identification legislation in Texas. Masset connected the inflated furor over voter fraud to photo identification laws and their expected impact on legitimate voters:

      Among Republicans it is an “article of religious faith that voter fraud is causing us to lose elections,”Masset said. He doesn’t agree with that, but does believe that requiring photo IDs could cause enough of a dropoff in legitimate Democratic voting to add 3 percent to the Republican vote.”

      The thing that proponents of such laws never understand is that the burden of justifying the measure is on them. Have you proven that voter fraud is such a problem that you need to force people to carry state issued ID’s? Of course the answer is no. Your opinion as to what constitutes ludicrous is immaterial. It doesn’t matter how easy you think it is to obtain such ID’s. You have to prove that extra effort was necessary in the first place. Frankly the arguments used in this regard rely entirely on rumors, slogans and fictions.

      Their silence on this subject was assent of their connections to conservative politics.

      • This is one of those areas where the chasm between your logic and mine is probably impossible to be bridge. It is beyond me that anyone would object to providing ID to participate in the governing of this country. It is beyond my comprehension to believe that it is out of the reach of anyone to get a proper ID. I bet these same folks have no problem finding time to obtain their government benefits cards (and yes I realize how offensive this characterization is to you, but my conviction that it is reality doesn’t change because it is offensive). I’ll go even further in my offensiveness: if a person doesn’t care enough about their civic duty to go to the trouble to be properly vetted for participation, they don’t deserve to vote. Don’t tell me they can’t get ID. If 3% of the population find it too toilsome to invest a half hour of their time every 4 years to get an ID, they don’t need to be making decisions about this country’s leadership. There is no “burden of proof” regarding fraud and the necessity of obtaining ID here. It’s simple – get an ID or get on the sidelines. Anybody with an iota of common sense understands this. I’m not buying your concern for the disenfranchised. The only motive I can process for fighting against ID is a desire for voter fraud. Let everyone identify themselves and take this concern off the table. The burden of proof is on the random person who shows up claiming the right to participate in this great governing process. This isn’t hard to understand.

        • Great reasoning. Now let’s apply that to firearm ownership, as well. If you can’t be bothered to handle the responsibility, including vigorous vetting, training, and psychological testing, you don’t get the right. I’m on board.

        • So 3% of the voting population being kept out of the polls for no legitimate reason whatsoever is not worth you worrying about. Its their fault for not following those new arbitrary rules set up deliberately to keep them out.

          “It is beyond my comprehension to believe that it is out of the reach of anyone to get a proper ID.”

          In other words you don’t have significant contact with the urban poor, elderly or people who do not own motor vehicles. Your ignorance is duly noted. You can deny it all you want, but the effect is documented. (See my prior link)

          What the fools supporting voter ID laws fail to comprehend at every juncture is that it doesn’t matter how easy you think it is to obtain an ID.
          It is the role of the government to justify making it a necessity to voting in the first place. They haven’t done that.

          Voter fraud is such an insignificant issue compared to the real, documented tangible effects of citizens voting that it can’t possibly be justified.

          I don’t need to hear how easy it is for you to get an ID. I need you to tell me why it was needed in the first place.

  4. Jacob’s observation on silence in the voter suppression debate is correct. There is no need for voter identification at the polls and the the self serving rationale for requiring it is obvious.

    • Even in post-war Iraq, people dipped their finger in dye to prove they only voted once where they were supposed to vote. It’s a no-brainer. In the most technologically advanced civilization in history, is it too much to ask that you vote once at the correct location? Is it really that big of an issue?

      • It was always voter suppression with a side order of racism. Stoking fears of a “brown peril” undermining the voting process. Typical racial politics.

  5. Can someone please explain to me how requiring an ID to vote is voter suppression? I am genuinely asking, I have heard this statement before, but never had any who cared to explain how it was true. Thanks in advance.

    • ‘Free’ voter IDs, provided by the state, are easy to get if you have good transportation – and can make it to the voter ID office during regular business hours – and can pay the required fee (usually around $20) – and can easily prove you live where you say you live. But if you are a part of the working poor, none of these things is easy or ‘free’. Because most of the working poor in the South are minorities, Black and Latino, such voter ID laws have a proportionally unfair effect on minorities. If you add in the fact of a history racial discrimination and intimidation by governmental offices against minorities, you have individuals in those groups among the working poor who are rightly or wrongly afraid of going to get an ID. So voter ID laws end up being discriminatory and denying the right to vote by their predictable effects on specific parts of the population.

      • All proposed voter ID laws that I have seen, including the one in PA where I live, did not charge for the state issued ID. Furthermore, all individuals, whether working poor or not; black, white, hispanic, asian, etc., are inconvenienced by the hours of the state office issuing the ID. There is no discrimination in that regard. Lastly, virtually all state DMV offices have Saturday hours, SPECIFICALLY for this reason.

        I want every legal citizen to vote. Every. single. last. one. But the arguments you cited hold no water.

        • Every state where voter ID laws were instituted somehow cutbacks on DMV services always followed. The urban offices being the first ones closed down in efforts of “fiscal responsibility”.

          MC, the ability to vote should not cost ANYTHING. That is what is called a poll tax. Poll taxes have a long history of being used to suppress votes as also with literacy tests.

          ALL limits to the ability of a citizen to go to the polls must be justified by compelling government interest. It is not for you to justify how easy it is to follow the new rules, its for you to justify why the new rules were necessary in the first place. There is no rational justification for Voter ID laws. Voter fraud is orders of exponentially smaller than the suppression effect on legitimate voting citizens.

      • Democrats have no problem bussing these same sad disenfranchised voters to polling places and also to tell them how to vote when they get there. Start your bus tour 30 minutes early, get ‘em an ID, and take ‘em to vote. Problem solved. Take the money you used to procure their Obama-phones and pay for it. This moral outrage is ridiculous.

        • How about this, explain why you needed the ID in the first place.

          That is what THE LAW REQUIRES when making significant changes to voting.

          How about we issue a tax on people going to the polls or give literacy tests? This way we can insure we have people who know the issues and have enough means to care about the system. Oh wait, those were used to deliberately keep people from voting.

          How is this different from a poll tax?
          http://www.americaslibrary.gov/jb/modern/jb_modern_polltax_1.html

      • Except its true.

        The rhetoric used to justify voter ID laws is always steeped in demonizing Latinos, denigrating Blacks and ignoring old and poor people.

        Most old citizens in nursing homes are unable to vote under these laws. These are people who usually with no need for a drivers license, limited mobility and a small public records footprint. [See how easy it is to get birth certificates for people over 85!]

        This is why the former political director for the Republican Party of Texas specifically spoke out against these measures. They would keep his mother and those like her away from the polls.

  6. Jacob,

    Thank you for the article. One caveat is in your terminology. Baptist churches affiliate with one another through varying different ways. They affiliate through local associations, state conventions, or the national conventions. Through a local association, due to the contribution, a church affiliates with the national and state bodies. However, a church could decide to just affiliate with the state body or the national body. It hampers local fellowship and cooperation, but it is done quite often. The national body does not form the state bodies nor does the state body form the local bodies. A group of churches could get fed up with their local association and form their own. Same with the state convention. It is fully autonomous churches affiliating together at whichever level they prefer.

    That said, the referenced church in California will likely no longer be in affiliation, in the near future, with the SBC either locally, statewide, or nationally. However, as churches don’t “join” a denominaiton, they “affiliate” with the churches of a convention or association. They will not be “expelled.” Their contribution (the primary means of affiliation), at a vote of the churches (through messengers), at a meeting of the body through which their primary affiliation exists, will be rejected and/or sent back (if already received). They will therefore be disaffiliated. They won’t be expelled as they were never “under the umbrella” of a denomination. The varying associations and conventions (and their respective staff and doctrine) are under the umbrella of the affiliated churches as they are the churches. It’s a minor difference but baptist ecclesiology is really a bunch of independent and fully autonomous churches, who exercise congregations governance (including elder led) and practice credobaptistm by immersion, opting to cooperate together through varying types of affiliation.

  7. Mark, I am not sure what you are trying to say but any SB church that affirms and accepts GLBT individuals into full fellowship of the church will be kicked out of the SBC on the association, state, and national levels.When it comes to the GLBT issue SB churches are not autonomous. This is not hearsay, it is a fact. I am a former SB (45 years) but don’t fret, I am now fully recovered.

  8. If, indeed, it is so terribly difficult for the “working poor” to find their way to the local DMV for a free ID, then it must be equally inconvenient for them to make their way to polling sites to vote. Perhaps, in order to completely avoid all suppressing and oppressing we should make it possible for them to vote without leaving their homes at all. No one should have to do that…
    Seriously, I think it is much more racist and insulting to the working poor (or anyone else) to suggest they are incapable of making a one time trip out to get a free ID. Regardless of anyone’s motivation for instituting the law, it is not at all unreasonable to require EVERYONE to properly identify themselves in order to vote. And no, the burden of proof is not to prove there is rampant voter fraud, the real burden is to prove there is someone who literally cannot at anytime between now and the next election secure an ID.

    • Actually its more insulting to the working poor and elderly to force them to make a trip to get a free ID to exercise a right they are entitled to with only the most extreme justification for limitations.

      It is insulting to the intelligence of everyone involved to put up the pretense that voter fraud was a legitimate problem to the degree where ID’s were even necessary.

      It doesn’t matter whether you thought the voter ID measure was only a minor inconvenience, there was no purpose behind doing it in the first place. The fact that such laws have been documented to skew elections towards the GOP is evidence enough of the bad faith arguments being employed in their favor.

      • I voted last week in the primary election. I had to show my ID. It’s not a big deal. My comments and opinions are not to defend the GOP or put down DEMS and the working poor. My point is that it is not a big deal. There may have been some (maybe many?) involved in creating the law who had the worst of intentions, but I know for a fact that there are in existence many people who favor voter IDs whose end game is not to suppress votes, promote racism, or hurt puppies. Do you honestly think this is the first law every presented that seemed unreasonable, oppressive, inconvenient, or unjustified (at least by some)? Seriously, get an ID, exercise your right to vote your conscience, and let it go. One thing I have learned in life: people will always find a way to do what is most important to them.

        • Just because its easy for you to do so, doesn’t mean it is for others. This is the cognitive disconnect Voter ID law supporters have. It makes it easier for you to say with a straight face that you want to keep citizens away from the voting booths.

          There is no legitimate justification for the changes. It is a big deal because these laws DO cause a significant drop off in voting among some citizens. If you can’t justify the changes, they are ILLEGAL. The burden is on the state to prove the need, not for others to prove it is unnecessary.

          “Do you honestly think this is the first law every presented that seemed unreasonable, oppressive, inconvenient, or unjustified (at least by some)? ”

          Do you think that is an excuse to keep a law or not to complain when it causes a tangible harm to people? Do you think that just because you are not harmed others aren’t?

          Seriously get a clue. These laws are always enacted part and parcel with making obtaining such ID’s more difficult to urban, poor and elderly voters. (closing DMV’s, increasing requirements for obtaining ID’s) Nobody should have to pay a fee to vote. You shouldn’t take voting rights so lightly.

    • Joh n McGrath

      Abstract comment. Unaware of the actual experience of what has been done in reality to block the votes of the poor, especially minority poor. Abstractions distance, experience and observation would produce more empathy.

      • Here is a study conducted on the effects of voter ID laws in stealing votes.
        http://www.brennancenter.org/page/-/The%20Truth%20About%20Voter%20Fraud.pdf

        Not too abstract. Very real, very tangible effects in skewing elections.

  9. Joan McDonald

    I also reject the idea that requiring voter ID is an indication of racism. I work in health care. ALL patients who use any form of insurance, medicare, Medicaid (third party payor) are required by government regulations to have photo ID to avoid insurance fraud. No one has said that is because we want to limit or deprive the poor or minorities of health care. It is to prevent insurance fraud. The buses that I saw on television provided by community organizers to take people to vote could just as easily use these buses to take those without ID to sites where photo ID can be obtained legally. Problem solved. I want everyone to vote who is legally eligible to vote. BTW I am not a member of any political party.

    • None of the government entitlements you described are on the same level of importance rights-wise as voting rights. You are not entitled to insurance, medicare, medicaid or even a driver’s license. All citizens are entitled to be able to vote without impediment.

      Racism definitely plays a factor because voter ID laws have the effect of causing drop-offs among minority voters. The rhetoric employed to justify them drips with racism, aspersions and outright fictions. The same thing that Poll taxes and literacy tests did in the “bad old days”. Nobody should have to rely on public activism just to be able to get to the polls.

      Most importantly, THERE IS NO JUSTIFICATION WHATSOEVER to voter ID laws. Of course it goes hand in hand with cutting government services and reducing availability of government facilities in urban areas.

      The problem with the arguments for voter ID laws are nobody wants to address the legal basis for making changes to voting rules. Changes to voting rules require the state to show a compelling interest in the changes and that it won’t have an effect of voter suppression. It never mattered whether you think the changes were reasonable, they required a very very good reason to do them in the first place.

  10. Joh n McGrath

    Soul freedom? Indeed more alignment with Vatican Catholicism in imposing top-down conformity on local churches. soul freedom used to be the mark of the Baptist faith. Whatever this new Calvinist church is it is not in continuity with the original American Baptist church. perhaps the SBC should drop the name Baptist.

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