A Tale of Two Southern Baptists

We can all agree these aren’t “normal” times…

…whatever “normal” means. Regardless, political and religious arenas have changed drastically in recent years, and things don’t seem quite as black and white (or perhaps, red and blue) as they once did. After the shocking rise and eventual victory of Donald Trump as President of the United States, the nation’s largest Protestant group stands divided over the bombastic figure. But this is far from the first time that group has faced disagreements.

The recent history of the SBC

As the American political spectrum went through its last major shake up in the 1980s, the Southern Baptists changed too. As the “dixie democrat” South quickly transitioned to become the heart of the “religious right”, the Southern Baptists went through a radical shift as well: from the moderate, “big tent” denomination of many Baptists, to the intensely conservative, even “fundamentalist” group we know today. The motivations for this orchestrated shift are numerous. If you believe the official publications of the convention, you will see that a major component of this fight was a shift to so-called “biblical inerrancy“. If you dig a little deeper, you’ll find the role of women and an increased allegiance to the issues of the new evangelical culture wars also played a major role in the shift. For this generation of Southern Baptists, an important part of their faith now mandated that their politics align with the new moral majority.

Southern Baptist support for the religious right has worked out fairly well: it helped support Christian candidates such as George W. Bush, and more recently, Ted Cruz. As the years went by, the Southern Baptists eventually expelled all liberals and moderates from their midst, creating a unified, conservative denomination that invited in newer, younger conservative churches and urged the older conservative churches to grow.

So that brings us to today

The original architects of the conservative movement in the SBC are of course, aging. As the important positions in the convention have slowly been filled by younger men, the allegiance to fiercely conservative evangelicalism has remained the same, but the underlying political allegiance has changed. You see, though the older generation had understood “Christianity” to mean “modern republicanism” when it came to politics, the younger generation seems to have been more concerned with the issues themselves than the party. Because the issues as the SBC understands them mostly line up with one party, this almost never caused a problem.

Until 2016.

Cue Donald Trump versus a candidate most every conservative voter already knew they hated: Hillary Clinton. To the older generation of Southern Baptists, the answer seemed obvious: morality didn’t matter, other issues didn’t matter, Donald Trump was the candidate for the party they knew to be holier, and the candidate that was opposed to abortion. To these believers, it was simply a matter of voting the way they knew they were supposed to, and moving on. The younger generation, however, was not a part of forming the religious right, and didn’t feel the intense loyalty to the movement we can see in their older counterparts. To them, Donald Trump’s obvious anti Christian activities made him a horrible candidate.

To be absolutely sure, these younger Southern Baptists are still politically and theologically conservative, they just don’t view Donald Trump as a good representation of those values (and he isn’t). This deeply impacted Russel Moore, the director of the SBC’s public policy arm, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. As the Southern Baptist with the loudest political voice, Moore spoke continually against Trump’s anti-Christian values, pointing out the things many younger Southern Baptists were already discussing.

Follow the money

Though the Southern Baptist Convention has large, young churches, the majority of the money comes from more traditional Southern Baptist mega churches led by older pastors. Consider strongholds like First Baptist Dallas, and Prestonwood Baptist Church. The leaders of these churches were ecstatic to support Donald Trump: it finally gave them a reprieve from President Obama, and they felt that they could control Trump’s views toward evangelical issues and cozy up to his endless money and power.

Now the leadership of Prestonwood Baptist Church is withholding one million dollars from the Southern Baptist Convention, explicitly because Moore disagrees with Donald Trump. This puts the Southern Baptists in a precarious position: do they trust their leaders (who have not violated the statement of belief), or do they trust the money of their cooperating churches?

There are functionally (at least) two Southern Baptist Conventions now: one is older, generally white, staunchly republican, and rich. The other SBC is younger, a bit more diverse, usually Calvinist, less wealthy, and more committed to evangelical political issues than a specific party. Can they co exist? I would like to think so. What I think is more likely is that the older generation might fire the charismatic Moore, and perhaps his counterpart at the International Mission Board, David Platt, and see a mass exodus of churches that don’t give much, but bring a lot of young life to the Convention. Alternatively, the younger Southern Baptists might stage an uprising and overthrow of the Convention similar to their parent’s generation.

Why is this important?

The Southern Baptist Convention is both the largest non-Catholic religious group in America and the largest missions agency in the world. If America is going to be touched by a church and if the world is going to be reached by a group, it is most likely going to be the Southern Baptists. For almost forty years now though, the SBC has not been reaching America and has not been reaching the world. They have been fighting, expelling people they dislike, and reforming their theology. As things finally began to calm down for the Convention in the 21st century, and newer, younger, intensely missional churches began to join the fold, the old fights flared once more. I would love nothing more for the Southern Baptists to live up to their call to reach the world, because the alternative Baptist groups I’ve been forced to join simply don’t have the same resources, but as long as old, white, “moral majority” men continue to silence dissent, the Southern Baptists will get nowhere.

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