Because of the outspoken opposition to Donald Trump by some of its leaders, and its call (in a resolution just passed at its annual meeting in St. Louis) for removal of the Confederate flags from public places and churches, the Southern Baptist Convention has been much in the news lately. A deeper dig into the resolutions emerging from the convention, however, presents a more complex picture than reported in the press, and suggests some reasons for the ineffectiveness of the #NeverTrump non-movement.
Following the “conservative resurgence”/”fundamentalist takeover” (choose your descriptor, the former preferred by Southern Baptist conservatives, the latter by so-called “moderates”) of the convention beginning in 1979, the SBC generally (and correctly) has been seen as a reliable barometer and leading voice of religious right politics. In 2009, the convention passed the following resolutions in reaction to the election of President Obama:
RESOLVED, That we strongly urge the President to nominate strict constructionist judges who seek to make decisions based on the original intent of the United States Constitution and, therefore, faithfully interpret rather than make law or impose their political views on the nation; and be it further
RESOLVED, That we strongly protest any effort by the President or his administration to eradicate the symbols of our nation’s historic Judeo-Christian faith from public or private venues; and be it further
RESOLVED, That we express our strong opposition to the President’s declaration concerning his decision to declare June as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month…
During the first term of the Obama administration, the convention’s best-known public spokesperson was Richard Land, a hard-right culture warrior whose racially-tinged remarks late during his term as head of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the SBC verged on self-parody. At a Glenn Beck rally at a church in Texas, shortly before retiring, he referred to the 2012 presidential election as the most important one since 1860—yes, the most important since the one that brought on the Civil War.
Since then, the convention elected its first black President (Fred Luter, a pastor in New Orleans), replaced Land, and has gone through its own internal theological controversies between neo-Calvinists and those who take a more broadly evangelical view of the ken of salvation. In short, whatever their agreements on political issues, well-known Southern Baptists increasingly aired significant differences on a fundamental point of Christian doctrine.
But for purposes of press coverage and public image, most of the attention focused on the convention’s resolution about the Confederate flag. Founded in 1845 as part of the antebellum dispute over slavery, the Southern Baptist Convention had long been wrapped together with the Confederate flag, both central to historic white southern identity. Southern Baptists historically represented a regional culture-religion that virtually defined the Bible Belt.
Following the Civil Rights Movement, the energies of defenders of “traditional” culture moved towards concern with gender norms (especially “wifely submission”), while the convention moved to align itself with new national norms of racial equality. Like many other denominations, the convention offered an apology for its past support of slavery and racism, and has participated in racial reconciliation statements and exercises.
The most-noted move of the convention’s meeting last week in St. Louis was to urge avoiding display of the Confederate flag (despite its association with “remembering family heritage and sacrifice,” reprising familiar themes of the Lost Cause developed in the late nineteenth century). The resolution on the flag reads:
WHEREAS, More than 20 percent (nearly eleven thousand) of our cooperating Southern Baptist congregations identify as predominately non-Anglo and for the last two years more than 50 percent of Southern Baptist new church plants are predominately non-Anglo; and
WHEREAS, We recognize that the Confederate battle flag is used by some and perceived by many as a symbol of hatred, bigotry, and racism, offending millions of people; . . .
RESOLVED, That we acknowledge both the importance of remembering family heritage and sacrifice, as well as the urgency of pursuing a unified Body of Christ and racial healing in America; and be it further
RESOLVED, That, we call our brothers and sisters in Christ to discontinue the display of the Confederate battle flag as a sign of solidarity of the whole Body of Christ, including our African American brothers and sisters…
Meanwhile, a resolution about the tragedy in Orlando noted that “we regard those affected by this tragedy as fellow image-bearers of God and our neighbors.” Tweets from SBC leaders expressed regard for the LGBT community affected by the slaughter in Florida. The contrast with the 2009 resolution was remarkable.
Far less noted, but an equally important indicator of sentiments among evangelicals is one of the two lengthiest resolutions passed at the St. Louis meeting. Its assumptions stood in accord with the framework for public argument adopted by a variety of evangelical and Catholic groups: religious freedom defined as the right to deny business services or recognition to others, or medical services to those in one’s employ. Noting that “any law that directly contradicts natural law and biblical truth is an unjust law,” the resolution “On Biblical Sexuality and Freedom of Conscience” continued:
WHEREAS, The Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision in 2015 purporting to redefine marriage does violence to the Constitution and is contrary to the Bible and natural order; and
WHEREAS, The Obama Administration’s recent “guidance” requiring transgender access in public school bathrooms and locker rooms based on its unauthorized redefinition of “sex” in federal law rejects God’s design of male and female; and
WHEREAS, Business owners and employees of various faiths are increasingly faced with decisions to submit to unjust laws about marriage and sexuality or violate their consciences; and
WHEREAS, Experience and recent history have shown that when the government redefines marriage as anything other than between a man and a woman, the police power of the state is brought to bear to enforce that redefinition, resulting in an inevitable collision with religious freedom and conscience rights; now, therefore, be it
RESOLVED, That the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention . . . express our commitment to biblical sexuality and continue to stand united in defense of God’s design for marriage; and be it further
RESOLVED, That we dissent from the Obergefell opinion that purports to redefine the institution of marriage created by God; and be it further…
The resolution expressed support for those who “struggle with gender identity and same-sex attraction, but who have chosen holiness and God’s design instead,” and then concluded:
RESOLVED, That we stand in solidarity with those whose jobs, professions, businesses, ministries, schools, and personal freedoms are threatened because their consciences will not allow them to recognize, promote, or participate in activities associated with unbiblical marriage; and be it finally
RESOLVED, That we commit to pray for revival and a return to a recognition of the sanctity of marriage as between one man and one woman, God’s design for gender, freedom of conscience, and unhindered religious freedom.
The ground of what is counted as “traditional culture” shifted during the civil rights years, and white southern-based groups such as the SBC eventually followed. But the place once held by race as a defining principle of God-ordained order has been supplanted by a view where particular notions of gender and sexuality take that place—undergirded now by astute capitalizing on the language of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (itself a response, ironically, to the words of Antonin Scalia in the Smith “peyote” case of 1988).
Certainly convention leaders have made some notable moves: dissing Donald Trump on Twitter, expressing dismay at the support of Trump by evangelical writers such as Eric Metaxas (author of a recent, deeply flawed book that “explores the forgotten connections between faith-based virtues and the survival of freedom in America”), and avoiding the blatantly homophobic proclamations of the past.
Moreover, the convention defended historic Baptist positions on religious freedom arising from the constitutional era—in this case, in supporting the rights of Muslims to build mosques. This came in response to a convention attendee who demanded to know how the SBC could defend Muslims’ rights “when these people threaten our very way of existence as Christians in America.” The answer was that “what it means to be a Baptist is to support soul freedom for everybody.” That’s the encouraging news, and one consonant with Baptist tradition.
The news elsewhere is not so encouraging. The biblical sexuality resolution and obsession with what bathroom transgendered people in North Carolina use suggests the central role that sexuality will continue to play in the evolving, yet consistently patriarchal, worldview of the nation’s largest evangelical organization. They may express sympathies with the LGBT community in general, but they also make clear that God’s design does not include gay bodies.
Moreover, even the #NeverTrump stance of convention leaders is paired with, in effect, a de facto #NeverHillary position. In this view, both are “evils,” and there’s not a lesser of two evils. It’s as if this is an election between Darth Vader and Chancellor Palpatine. This draws a moral equivalency between a fairly conventional centrist politician (with some Methodist civic gospel leanings) and a dangerous demagogue.
That is perhaps an improvement over the position of many Republican leaders (which is, in effect, he may be the antichrist, but he can help with our agenda and anyway Hillary is worse), and a step back from the worst days of the culture wars. But it has yet to embrace the most inclusive design for American democracy, and has not yet found a political vision beyond the imbalanced equation that #NeverTrump also equals #NeverHillary.