Why so many Southern Baptists do not believe in systemic racism

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If you want to understand what is dividing the Southern Baptist Convention today, watch this documentary produced by a group called Founders Ministries :

The discussion of race in America picks-up at the 33:00 minute mark when Thomas Ascol of Founders Ministries starts talking about “critical race theory” and “intersectionality.”

Why are some Southern Baptists so afraid of critical race theory?

I have never met a Southern Baptist who accepts every dimension of critical race theory. So I am imagining much of the concern regarding these ideas is best explained by the old slippery slope theory. In other words, critical race theory will lead to compromises in other areas of doctrine that will put Southern Baptists on the road to theological liberalism. These conservative Southern Baptists, like the fundamentalists of the early 20th-century, are always guarding against declension. In his wonderful book The Sin of Certainty, theologian Peter Enns compares this kind of Christian faith to “sentry duty.”

We can get at this issue in a slightly different way by thinking about the debates over social justice that have been raging in conservative evangelicalism.

There is much that is true about critical race theory. For example, it forces us to come to grips with the fact that some groups in society oppress other groups. In this sense, there are parts of critical race theory that illuminate the impact of human sin on modern life. Is anyone in the Founders Ministries group going to say that white people have not oppressed black people in American history? Is anyone going to deny that white Christians have used their power in ways that are unChristian? Critical race theory might be one way to make sense of this. If James Cone can help me become more aware of racism and teach me how to have a greater solidarity with the oppressed, then why wouldn’t I want to read him, engage him, and employ some of his ideas in my work? All truth is God’s truth. This seems to be the general thrust of the so-called Resolution 9 discussed in this video.

So what is really going on in this documentary? It seems like the folks who created it want to avoid having hard conversations about racism in America. In fact, it seems like they don’t want anyone in the Southern Baptist Convention to have conversations that might lead to more effective efforts at dealing with racism in church and society. They are trying to scare ordinary Southern Baptists by telling them that there is some evil Marxist force working in subtle ways to undermine Christianity. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

When I watched this documentary, at least the parts related to race, it seemed like I was watching the Southern Baptist version of a debate that recently took place in the House of Representatives:

Let’s remember that the Southern Baptist Convention was born as a pro-slavery denomination and remained committed to white supremacy for much of its history. As a result, white supremacy is deeply embedded in all of its institutions and has been for 150 years. Repentance, apologies, and spiritual transformation through the work of the Holy Spirit is necessary, but so is structural change.

Those looking to bring such structural change to the convention should be glad that Founders Ministries felt the need to produce this documentary. As an outsider looking in, it tells me that despite the Trumpism of Robert Jeffress, Jack Graham, Richard Land, Greg Laurie, and Al Mohler, some things are starting to change in the Southern Baptist Convention.

But I am also sure that folks like Jarvis Williams, Matt Chandler, Dwight McKissic, Matthew Hall, and Curtis Woods would say that the convention has a long way to go. As University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter reminds us, these kinds of deep structural changes often take generations and can only “be described in retrospect.”

Over at Religion News Service, Yonat Shimron has some good reporting on evangelicals and systemic racism. She quotes Redeemer Presbyterian Church founder Tim Keller: “You can’t simply say, ‘We’re going to convert everyone and convict them of the individual sin of racism and everything will be OK.”

If you want to dig deeper, a good place to start is Episode 48 (Jemar Tisby) and Episode 70 (Scott Hancock) of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.