Whenever you think about the principled Southern Baptist leaders opposing the ascension of America’s Problem Child to the GOP presidential nomination, think of this paragraph from an NPR report on Evangelicals and the shifting social scene:
For Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., the key question is “whether or not there is a binding morality to which everyone is accountable.”
And then think of this more accurate translation of Mohler’s remarks:
For Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., the key question is “whether or not people will do what we tell them to do.”
Harsh? Yeah, probably. Unfair? No, I don’t think so. There’s a theological argument to be made that Christian ethics—living in community while sorting through competing values—is more important than morality—absolute standards of right and wrong. Jesus himself taught that loving others was more important than obeying laws set down by religious authorities, especially those who would (ahem) declare their own self-serving positions to be the law. This should be obvious to anyone who’s bothered to pick up the Gospel of Luke or Acts of the Apostles.
But Mohler and other SBC leaders offer up the ethics of the white cis-het patriarchy and want the world to receive it as a universal moral code. They would be just as happy if you didn’t notice that they can only provide one particular interpretation of the gospel, rather than an objective and unchanging truth. To boot, it’s an interpretation that isn’t even fully shared by other conservative religious groups, nor is it without controversy even within the Southern Baptist Convention.
Take, for example, the question of women’s ordination, just one of the strands of opposition to contemporary mores mentioned in the NPR report:
Living as the moral exception was the prospect facing the Together for the Gospel attendees. Most were young men training to be pastors in Southern Baptist churches. The Southern Baptists are one of the Protestant denominations that do not ordain women, even as church deacons.
Now, Pope Francis isn’t about to make women priests, but he recently signaled it was worth considering their ordination as deacons, a position for which there is both historical and scriptural support. And maybe the proposed commission goes somewhere, maybe it doesn’t. But that Catholics are willing to even consider it shows how badly out of step the SBC leadership is. I mean, forget the evidence that women served as deacons in the early church. Forget Phoebe, the only person in the New Testament accorded the title of a church leader. The Orthodox Church in Greece ordains women as deacons. If you’re less progressive than them, you have to know you’re out on a limb.
But set even that aside. The conservative SBC leaders would also really rather you didn’t notice the evidence from their own church. Women have been ordained by Southern Baptist congregations. The policy against women in ministry has evolved over time. There are some SBC churches served by female pastors (or at least there were until they started kicking them out). And some Southern Baptist congregations don’t think it’s the convention’s role to tell them who they can ordain.
None of this is to say that there is no legitimacy to SBC traditionalism. If that’s what they want to teach, fine. It’s a free country, and there’s no reason to begrudge anyone their beliefs. But it’s simply horseshit to pretend that there wasn’t a historical process by which conservatives captured the reins of the denomination and have slowly but surely been purging even the mildest dissenting voices for the past 30 years.
So let’s be clear: the conservative SBC ethics is only one among many options. Mohler and the rest can claim it’s the mandate of “biblical morality” all they want, but that view hasn’t been shared even within their own communion. The SBC used to be marked by diversity in belief and practice, but now it marches ever closer to a rigid, centralized orthodoxy that would have been anathema to its founders. Mohler was and is part of the movement that created that situation.
So likewise, this business of Southern Baptist conservatives being a threatened minority just trying to maintain its way of life is baloney. They’ve supported every push to limit the reproductive rights of women and freedom for sexual minorities since before the Reagan era. Which is why this bit from the NPR piece is so odious:
In [Mohler’s] view, Christians must adapt to the changed cultural circumstance by finding a way “to live faithfully in a world in which we’re going to be a moral exception.” (It is this goal, Mohler says, that explains the passage of “religious liberty” laws to protect people who want to express their opposition to same-sex marriage or “transgenderism.”)
What the hell is transgenderism, even? The radical ideology of peeing in peace? The extremist belief that you shouldn’t get beat up or murdered because your sexual identity doesn’t match what’s listed on your birth certificate?
No, pretty clearly, the point of “religious liberty” laws is to carve out exemptions for people who aren’t ready to give up discrimination and also smuggle in some corporate-friendly language on the side. Conservative Evangelical leaders have fought these battles and fought them, and now they can’t accept that the nation has chosen to move in another direction that doesn’t privilege their perspective.
You can call this being a “moral exception” if you like. I call it being a sore loser who doesn’t have the courage of his or her convictions. Mohler says Evangelicals are called to put “the ‘protest’ back in Protestantism.” That’s about as authentic as the Brooks Brothers Riot.
But remember: this is one of the leading principled evangelical opponents of Donald Trump. It’s like Mohler is playing a good-cop-bad-cop routine with Russell Moore. Moore opposes Trump so the SBC can concentrate on racial reconciliation and ministry. Mohler opposes him so the SBC can focus on telling you who you can marry, who you can fall in love with, who you can fuck, and where you can go to the bathroom. There are a lot of good reasons to oppose America’s Problem Child. Those aren’t them.