Name changes in American evangelicalism

The Southern Baptist Church now wants to be called “Great Commission Baptists” but none of the denomination’s seminaries will remove the word “Southern” from their names and churches have the right to reject the new name. Go figure. Sarah Pulliam Bailey has the story at The Washington Post. The suggested move is an attempt to separate from the South’s racist roots.

Evangelicals for Social Action is now “Christians for Social Action.” Kate Shellnut has the story at Christianity Today.

Ron Sider, the founder of Evangelicals for Social Action, recently addressed the name change at his blog:

I want to tell you about an important name change for Evangelicals for Social Action. For 40 years, I had the privilege of leading ESA. Although I retired in 2013, I continue to serve as co-chair of the board.

Today,  September 15, ESA launched  a new fabulous website and announced its new name. Evangelicals for Social Action (ESA) is now Christians for Social Action (CSA).

Here is a short (well, relatively short!) explanation of the new name.

The most important thing to say is that the title I have given this blog makes the most important point: different name, same mission.

ESA began with the Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern written over the Thanksgiving weekend in 1973. About 50 evangelical leaders – – elders like Carl Henry, Frank Gaebelein and Vernon Grounds and younger folk like Jim Wallis, Sharon Gallagher, John Perkins,  Richard Mouw, and myself – – spent two days wrestling with the widespread lack of evangelical engagement on social issues such as economic and racial justice, peace, and the dignity of women. Everyone at the conference, both young and old, agreed that biblical faith demanded that American evangelicals become much more engaged in issues of social justice.

The Chicago Declaration started with  our central foundation: “As evangelical Christians committed to the Lord Jesus Christ and the full authority of the Word of God, we affirm… “  From there, the statement went on to call evangelicals to a vigorous commitment to struggle against personal and structural racism, economic injustice, “the misplaced trust of the nation in economic and military might,” and  men’s prideful domination of women.

The immediate response to the Chicago Declaration was stunning. There was massive coverage in both the religious and secular press. Almost everyone was surprised and many were delighted that evangelicals were ending a long silence and were now ready to launch a new movement of evangelical social action.

Evangelicals for Social Action (ESA) slowly emerged from this historical declaration. After  several years of only annual meetings, ESA became a membership organization with full-time staff in 1978. Our basic sense of mission was to develop biblically solid materials and meetings to help evangelical Christians become much more deeply engaged on issues of social justice. (We focused on evangelicals because we were evangelicals and that was where the need was greatest!)

In the next couple decades, ESA developed programs in many areas: working to end apartheid in South Africa; opposing our government’s support of the Nicaraguan contras in the 1980s; developing materials and workshops on global poverty; encouraging the emergence of Christians for Biblical Equality; launching an environmental program that became the Evangelical Environmental Network; working for racial justice. In the 1990s, when we began to fear that  some younger evangelical social activists might lose their passion for evangelism, ESA launched a program to help churches  combine word and deed. We hoped and prayed that vast numbers of American evangelicals would become part of a large movement that would work through both faith-based social service agencies and political engagement to make American society more just.

But ESA (and related organizations) were soon not the only ones urging theologically conservative Christians to reengage politics. In 1979, Jerry Falwell formed Moral Majority and led large numbers of fundamentalists into politics. In his run for the presidency in 1987-1988, Pat Robertson did the same for many charismatics and  Pentecostals. Their agenda was significantly different from that of  ESA. Whereas ESA believed biblical faith called us to a “completely pro-life “agenda, Falwell, Robertson and colleagues tended to focus on a much narrower range of issues ( especially abortion and  marriage). And they identified more and more with the politically conservative part of the Republican Party. Increasingly, the media equated evangelicals with the “Religious Right”. And in 2016, 81% of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. And they have continued to support this twice divorced sexist, who had boosted of sexual affairs, stoked racism, promoted policies that largely benefit the richest 20%, ignored the overwhelming scientific consensus on global warming and lied constantly, undermining democracy by dismissing anything he disliked as fake news.

Today the word evangelical in the popular mind has largely political connotations. For large numbers of people,  it signifies a right-wing political movement irrevocably committed to Donald Trump. Large numbers of young people raised in evangelical churches are turning away in disgust – – abandoning evangelical churches and even sometimes Christian faith itself. And the larger society thinks of evangelicals  not as people committed to Jesus Christ and  the biblical gospel but as pro-Trump political activists.

The result is that ESA increasingly found that our name failed to communicate who we really are. And it also led people to click off any message with that name before we had any opportunity to  explain that the word evangelical is a rich theological term that refers to historic Christian orthodoxy and a commitment to Jesus’ gospel (the word  evangelical comes from the Greek word for Gospel.) Because of a long history of white evangelical racism, the black church has long refused to use the term evangelical for itself even though its theology and piety are very close to what the word evangelical used to mean. And since 2016, there is even more resistance among African-American   Christians to the word evangelical.

So after careful thought and prayer, we have decided to change our name – – a little! Our new name is Christians for Social Action (CSA). We believe that will help us win a listening ear with more people – – not least with African-Americans. And it certainly will avoid people refusing to even take a minute to see who we are because they see a word that for many people immediately signals  “right-wing, pro-Trump” political folk.

Read the rest here.

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.

How the history of white evangelical racism has led to Donald Trump’s election and continues to shape support for his presidency

Believe Me 3dI begin with a caveat. This post is not implying that all white evangelicals are or have been racist. Many white evangelicals have been anti-racist and have fought hard to curb systemic racism in American life. But, as I argued in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, these are not historical forces that led many white evangelicals to vote for Donald Trump in 2016. They are not the historical forces that have led many white evangelicals to continue to support Donald Trump. They are not the historical forces that will lead many white evangelicals to vote for Donald Trump in 2020.  And they are not the historical forces that have led many white evangelicals to reject systemic racism in the wake of George Floyd’s killing.

But here is some history:

1 .After Nat Turner’s slave rebellion, which resulted in sixty white deaths in Southampton County, Virginia, fearful white evangelical Christians in the South began to fight harder for the expansion of slavery to the west in the belief that its spread to more open country might reduce the proximity of slaves to one another and thus make insurrections more difficult. White churches responded to Turner’s rebellion with missionary efforts in the hope that the chances of passion-filled revolts might be reduced if slaves could be monitored more closely by white clergy and lay church leaders. Yes, the idea of African Americans rebelling and causing disorder has been around for a long time.

2. The anxieties stemming from slave insurrections led Southern ministers to develop a biblical and theological defense of slavery. These ministers argued that anyone who read the Bible in a literal, word-for-word fashion (as God intended it to be read) would conclude that God had ordained this system of labor. Commonsense interpretations of Bible passages that referred to slavery were often difficult to refute. Old Testament patriarchs such as Abraham owned slaves. Slavery was a legal institution in the New Testament world, and the apostle Paul urged the Roman Christians to obey government laws. In the book of Philemon, Paul required the runaway slave Onesimus to return to his owner. Writing in the immediate wake of the Nat Turner rebellion, Thomas Dew, a professor of political science at the College of William and Mary, used the Bible to defend the view that all societies had a fixed and natural social structure. Citing 1 Corinthians 7:20-21, Dew reasoned that Africans should remain slaves because God had created them to fulfill such a role in society. Slaves had been given a divine “calling” and, in Paul’s words, “each one should remain in the condition in which he was called.” One South Carolina Presbyterians went so far as to say, “If the Scriptures do not justify slavery…I know not what they do justify.” I am reminded here of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Albert Mohler’s remarks about slavery.

3. Evangelicals thought that the South’s social order, and its identity as a Christian culture worthy of God’s blessing, was grounded in a proper reading of the Bible. In other words, the people of the South–and eventually the Confederate States of America–believed that they were living in a Christian society precisely because they upheld the institution of slavery.  The abolitionist argument against slavery was not only heretical because it violated the explicit teaching of Scripture; it also threatened the Christian character of the United States. Robert L. Dabney, a Virginia Presbyterian clergyman and one of the strongest defenders of slavery and white supremacy in the South, contended that the notion that slaves–or any Africans for that matter–had “rights” and thus deserved freedom was a modern idea introduced in the eighteenth-century by the progressive thinkers of the Enlightenment, not by the expositors of God-inspired Scripture.  James Henley Thornwell, another powerful theological voice in support of slavery, understood the Civil War as a clash between atheist abolitionists and virtuous slaveholders: “The parties in this conflict are not merely abolitionists and slaveholders–they are atheists, socialists, communist, red republicans, Jacobins on the one side, and friends of order and regulated freedom on the other. Sound familiar? Watch this or most other episodes of the Eric Metaxas Show. One of Thornwell’s students, New Orleans Presbyterian minister Benjamin Palmer, said that the South had been called “to conserve and to perpetuate the institution of slavery as not existing.” It was a duty to “ourselves, to our slaves, to the world, and to almighty God.”

4. Southern evangelicals also feared the mixing of races (even though the races were mixed mainly because of the long history of master raping slaves). Slaveholders believed that their defense of a Christian civilization was directly connected to the purity of the white race. One Presbyterian minister in Kentucky claimed that “no Christian American” would allow the “God-defying depravity of intermarriage between the white and negro races.”  South Carolina governor George McDuffie, who  said that “no human institution…is more manifestly consistent with the will of God, then domestic slavery,” also claimed abolitionists were on a “fiend-like errand of mingling the blood of master and slave.” In the process, McDuffie argued, they were contributing to the “end of the white republic established in 1776.”

5. Longstanding racial fears did not fade away with the Union victory in the Civil War. Reconstruction amendments that ended slavery (Thirteenth) and provided freedmen with citizenship rights (Fourteenth) and voting rights (Fifteenth) only reinforced Southern evangelical racism. A classic example of this was Dabney’s opposition to the ordination of freedmen in the Southern Presbyterian Church. During an 1867 debate over this issue, Dabney said that the ordination of African American minister in the white Presbyterian church would “threaten the very existence of civil society.” It was God, Dabney argued, who created racial difference and, as a result, “it was plainly impossible for a black man to teach and rule white Christians to edification.” He predicted a theological version of “white flight” by suggesting that black ordination would “bring a mischievous element in our church, at the expense of driving a multitude of valuable members and ministers out.” Dabney would not sit by and watch his denomination permit “amalgamation” to “mix the race of Washington and Lee, and Jackson, with this base herd which they brought from the pens of Africa.”

6. Northern Protestant fundamentalists at the turn of the 20th century were aware of the moral problem of racism, but they did very little to bring it to an end. While they did occasionally speak out against lynching and other acts of racial violence, they failed to see how their literal views of the Bible contributed to systemic racism in American life. White terror groups seemed to understand this better than the fundamentalists did. As historian Matt Sutton has shown, the Ku Klux Klan regularly sought partnerships with fundamentalists. The Klan’s leaders believed Protestant fundamentalist crusades to save Christian America made them a natural ally in the war against African Americans, Catholics, Jews, and immigrants. Some fundamentalist commentaries on race could have been lifted from the collected works of 19th-century pro-slavery theologians such as Lewis Dabney or James Henry Thornwell. A.C. Dixon, the fundamentalist pastor of the Hanson Place Baptist Church in Brooklyn, called the Fifteenth Amendment (the amendment that gave African Americans the right to vote) “the blunder of the age” because African Americans were “ignorant” and thus ill-equipped to cast a ballot. Other fundamentalists upheld typical racial stereotypes that portrayed African Americans as rapists, murderers, and threats to white women. In 1923, Moody Monthly, the flagship publication of fundamentalism, published articles defending Klan activity. Fundamentalist fears about the decline of Christian America regularly manifested themselves in racism.

7. In the wake of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, an event which historians have called “the single worst incident of racial violence in American history,” several evangelical and fundamentalist clergymen were quick to put their white supremacy on display. Edwin D. Mouzon, the bishop of the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, said he did not know who was to blame for the massacre. But if you read the front page of the June 6, 1921 edition of the Morning Tulsa Daily World, “black agitators,” including black activist and historian W.E.B. Du Bois, were to blame.
Mon, Jun 6, 1921 – Page 1 · The Morning Tulsa Daily World (Tulsa, Oklahoma) · Newspapers.com

Mouzon said, “there is one thing…upon which I should like to make myself perfectly clear. That is racial equality. There never has been and there never will be such a thing. It is divine ordained. This is something that negroes should be told very plainly…At the same time, we must have a Christian attitude toward the black man; he is made by the same creator; he is subject to the same Christian laws, he is our brother in Christ.” On the same day, Reverend J.W. Abel of Tulsa’s First Methodist Church said, “What other nation in all human history has done as much [for] a people as the white race has done for the race which but a brief century ago emerged from slavery? A race which even in slavery was a thousand times better off than the black princes who ruled their race in Africa.” Abel continued, “But the sin of this [black] race is that they are all too ready to protect a member of the race in crime, for no other reason that he is a negro…some day the negro will come to know that the white race is his best friend.” Dr. Howard G. Cooke, pastor of Tulsa’s Centennial Methodist Church, noted that “there has been a great deal of loose-mouthed and loose-minded talking about the white people of Tulsa being equally to blame with the blacks. This is not true.” He added, “[The massacre] should be the beginning of a new regime of law and order in this city.” This is is an interesting observation in light of the fact that a self-proclaimed “law and order” president will be holding a rally in Tulsa tomorrow night, only a few weeks after the 99th anniversary of the massacre.  (Thanks to historian Kenny Brown for bringing this material to my attention)

8. In the mid-20th century,  white evangelicals had a mixed track record regarding racial issues facing the country during the civil rights movement. Billy Graham was famous for desegregating his evangelistic crusades, and many evangelical leaders and publications supported the Brown v. Board of Education decision ending segregation in public schools, just as they supported the Civil Rights Acts (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965). But very few Northern evangelicals actually participated in the movement, and strong pockets of segregationist thought and practice continued to exist in the evangelical South. Most white evangelicals were not particularly interested in the civil rights movement; they were far more concerned about–and opposed to–the way the federal government used its power to enforce desegregation and oppose Jim Crow laws in their local communities. Historian Mark Noll has argued that race and civil rights served as an entry point for the white conservative evangelicals critique of active government.

9. This relationship between race and evangelical opposition to “big government” intervention into state and local affairs is best illustrated in the evangelical response to two Supreme Court cases. Green v. Connally (1972) removed tax-exempt status from private schools and colleges that discriminated against students based on race. At the center of the controversy was Bob Jones University, a school that banned interracial dating and denied admission to unmarried African Americans. In 1975, the IRS moved to revoke the tax-exempt status of the university, a case that was eventually decided in favor of the IRS in Bob Jones v. United States.  Green v. Connolly and Bob Jones v. United States also had implications for the hundreds of private Christian academies cropping up (at the rate of two per day) all over the United States. Many of these schools were in the South and had discriminatory admissions policies, which is not surprising given that many such schools were founded in the immediate aftermath of public-school integration. When President Jimmy Carter, a self-proclaimed “born-again Christian,” supported the Green v. Connally decision, he alienated many conservative evangelicals who ran these academies. To be fair, many segregationist academies were already beginning to admit African American students in the early 1970s, but the leaders of these schools, true to their Southern heritage, wanted to deal with the issues of segregation, race, and civil rights on their own terms. They certainly did not want the federal government forcing them to desegregate.

10. Thus, when Jerry Falwell and like minded conservative evangelicals created the Moral Majority in the late 1970s, they already had experienced the power of the central government when the Supreme Court intruded on the affairs of their segregated academies. In fact, historian Randall Balmer contends that it was this fear of big-government interference as it related to desegregation of institutions like Bob Jones University and Falwell’s own Liberty Academy that prompted the formation of the Christian Right. Paul Weyrich, one of Falwell’s closest associates and one of the leading organizers of the movement, told Balmer in a 1990 interchange that the Christian Right was originally founded, not on evangelicals’ opposition to abortion, but rather on opposition to the attempts by the IRS to desegregate Christian academies.

11. Many of Trump’s evangelical supports came to Trump’s rescue when, in August 2017, he drew a moral equivalency between white supremacy in Charlottesville, Virginia and those who came to the city to try to oppose them. Robert Jeffress, the pastor of First Baptist Church–Dallas, went on Fox Business Network and said that Trump “did just fine” in his statement(s) about the event. He performed a rhetorical move that court evangelicals and other Trump supporters have perfected: he changed the subject and went from defense to offense. Jeffress warned Fox viewers that an “axis of evil” (Democrats, the media, and the “GOP establishment) were plotting to take Trump down. He then reaffirmed America’s Judeo-Christian roots without any sense that many of the Judeo-Christian influences that have shaped United States history were intricately bound up with the kind of racism that the nation had witnessed in Charlottesville. Watch:

It is time that white evangelicals take a hard look at its past and stop trying to “Make America Great Again.” It is time, as theologian Jurgen Moltmann once said, to “waken the dead and piece together what has been broken.” The operate word is reconciliation, not “renew,” “restore” or “reclaim.”

Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Albert Mohler on His 1998 Defense of Slavery: “It sounds like an incredibly stupid comment, and it was”

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I really don’t have much to add to Jonathan Merritt’s piece at Religion News Service.  I would just ask people to think about the possible links between Mohler’s 1998 statement (and his views on race generally) and his current support for Donald Trump in 2020.

Here is a taste of Merritt’s piece:

In December of 2018, Albert Mohler, longtime president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, released a report detailing and denouncing the school’s legacy “in the horrifying realities of American slavery, Jim Crow segregation, racism, and even the avowal of white racial supremacy.”

The report was a historical reckoning for one of the nation’s largest evangelical seminaries, Mohler said at the time. While it denounced the racism in the school’s deep history, the report avoided any assessment of the school’s more recent past, including Mohler’s own time there as a student and his tenure as a president.

Mohler’s views about race and slavery came under scrutiny this week after comments he made in a conversation with Larry King in 1998 recently resurfaced.

In that interview, Mohler said that while the Bible does not endorse slavery, it does require slaves to obey their masters. When asked if that rule applied to runaway slaves, like the famed Harriet Tubman, he said that there is no loophole for disobeying. 

On Friday (May 15), Mohler told Religion News Service he was wrong. 

“It sounds like an incredibly stupid comment, and it was,” he said, after hearing his remarks from 1998. “I fell into a trap I should have avoided, and I don’t stand by those comments. I repudiate the statements I made.”

A review of documents, transcripts, videos, audio clips and interviews relating to Mohler’s beliefs and behaviors as a student and as the school’s president reveal Mohler may have more to repudiate and repent of.

Read the rest here.

When the Churches Can’t Provide the Social Safety Net That We Need

a3062-nodepressioninheavenIn the midst of our current pandemic, several historian friends have been referencing Alison Collis Greene‘s book No Depression in Heaven: The Great Depression, the New Deal, and the Transformation of Religion in the Delta. Greene’s book shows, among other things, that sometimes the good work of local churches in times of economic and social crises is just not enough.  Sometimes we need the government.

Over at The Baffler, Rachel Bryan, a doctoral student in literature at the University of Tennessee, reflects on Greene’s book in the context of her own experience growing-up in the South.  Here is a taste:

IN 2005, MY FAMILY HOME BURNED DOWN. It was an old Sears Roebuck Victorian that my parents spent over twenty years remodeling a bit at a time. The fire happened in June in Alabama; I was asleep in my older sister’s bedroom while she was at the beach because she had an air conditioner in her room, and I didn’t in mine. I slept in her bed whenever I could, which saved my life when the fire started in an outlet in my room. Later that year, Hurricane Katrina came through and flooded what was left of the house’s ground level. We had insurance and were able to eventually rebuild, after a stint in a house with possums in the attic, but I remember the stifling silence of our small town’s churches during those years. Our own church was microscopic, with a few families and older people who could only offer the shirts off their backs—and many did. But I knew then, without question, that churches weren’t a social safety net. If we needed help, the church wouldn’t be the provider.

Those memories came back to me recently when, for a Southern history seminar, I read Alison Collis Greene’s 2015 study No Depression in Heaven: The Great Depression, the New Deal, and the Transformation of Religion in the Delta. Greene tells the story behind what she calls “the myth of the redemptive depression.” There is some truth to the myth, she notes in her opening. “Members of families and communities indeed turned to one another in their hardship, and many also turned to their churches for solace, for support, for meaning.” Yet in the Mississippi Delta, people quickly saw “the inadequacy of families, communities, and churches full of poor people to aid one another in their time of mutual distress. The Great Depression gave lie to the toxic notion that responsibility for poverty lies with the poor rather than with systems of oppression that make a mockery of the American dream.” With a global pandemic and economic recession—if not full-scale depression—looming, Greene’s study of religious charity and political power speaks to life and death concerns in the nation’s most vulnerable regions—and sheds light on what we’re all about to face.

And this:

Later, Greene’s book turns to the reshaping of American national memory—specifically, how the New Right emerged after World War II to rewrite the narrative of the church’s failures during the Depression, and how the church further aligned with the nation’s commitment to capitalist industry in the late twentieth century. The new story encouraged resistance to socialized poverty initiatives, and it framed the state as having gotten in the way of effective church charity

In these rosy new narratives, the Great Depression brought suffering and sorrow, but also thrift and humility. It did precisely what religious authorities had hoped it would: it stripped away life’s superfluities and brought people together, and to God. The Great Depression brought redemption—or it would have, if only Franklin Roosevelt had not interfered.

That’s the redemptive myth, and it fortified the falsehood that governmental assistance was unnecessary, and even harmful to individual initiative and religious charity. This history is important for Southern communities today, especially in places where churches are taking tithes online but will go on to offer no direct relief aid to their congregations. And communities will continue to send their prayers, find social solace in their church communities, and listen to sermons about their communities coming together, all while these churches have no loaves and fishes to spare.

Read the entire piece here.

Southern Baptist Convention President Tells Churches to Think Twice Before Inviting Paige Patterson to Preach

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Paige Patterson

Some of you may remember Paige Patterson, the former president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.  We’ve done a few posts on him over the years.

Here is Robert Downen of the Houston Chronicle:

The president of the Southern Baptist Convention on Friday said churches should consider disgraced former leader Paige Patterson’s history of mishandling sexual abuse complaints before inviting him to preach to their congregations.

President J.D. Greear’s remarks in response to Chronicle questions are the most forceful to be issued by SBC leadership regarding Patterson, who was ousted as the leader of a Fort Worth seminary in 2018 for his handling of multiple students’ abuse claims.

Greear noted Patterson’s dismissal from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in his remarks. “Trustees terminated Paige Patterson for cause, publicly disclosing that his conduct was ‘antithetical to the core values of our faith,’ ” Greear told the Chronicle. “I advise any Southern Baptist church to consider this severe action before having Dr. Patterson preach or speak and to contact trustee officers if additional information is necessary.”

Greear made the comments after the Chronicle asked him to respond to recent criticism of two SBC churches’ decisions to host Patterson, a former SBC president who was instrumental in pushing the nation’s second-largest faith group to adopt literal interpretations of the Bible.

Read the rest here.

Southern Baptist Sexual Abuse: 20 Years, 700 Victims

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The Southern Baptist Convention has its hands full today.  A piece of investigative journalism from the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News reveals a serious problem of sexual abuse in the denomination.  Here is a taste of their reporting:

Thirty-five years later, Debbie Vasquez’s voice trembled as she described her trauma to a group of Southern Baptist leaders.

She was 14, she said, when she was first molested by her pastor in Sanger, a tiny prairie town an hour north of Dallas. It was the first of many assaults that Vasquez said destroyed her teenage years and, at 18, left her pregnant by the Southern Baptist pastor, a married man more than a dozen years older.

In June 2008, she paid her way to Indianapolis, where she and others asked leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention and its 47,000 churches to track sexual predators and take action against congregations that harbored or concealed abusers. Vasquez, by then in her 40s, implored them to consider prevention policies like those adopted by faiths that include the Catholic Church.

“Listen to what God has to say,” she said, according to audio of the meeting, which she recorded. “… All that evil needs is for good to do nothing. … Please help me and others that will be hurt.”

Days later, Southern Baptist leaders rejected nearly every proposed reform.

The abusers haven’t stopped. They’ve hurt hundreds more.

In the decade since Vasquez’s appeal for help, more than 250 people who worked or volunteered in Southern Baptist churches have been charged with sex crimes, an investigation by the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News reveals.

It’s not just a recent problem: In all, since 1998, roughly 380 Southern Baptist church leaders and volunteers have faced allegations of sexual misconduct, the newspapers found. That includes those who were convicted, credibly accused and successfully sued, and those who confessed or resigned. More of them worked in Texas than in any other state.

They left behind more than 700 victims, many of them shunned by their churches, left to themselves to rebuild their lives. Some were urged to forgive their abusers or to get abortions.

About 220 offenders have been convicted or took plea deals, and dozens of cases are pending. They were pastors. Ministers. Youth pastors. Sunday school teachers. Deacons. Church volunteers.

Read the rest here.  This is the first of a three-part report.

Why I Defended Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Statement on its Racist Past

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Below is a version of what I wrote in the comments of this post.  You can read that post to get up to speed.

I responded to a post by someone named Justin S.  He wrote:

We are all in different stages of processing our racial heritage and identities, and I like you’re “walking” analogy. The trouble is–it seems to me–that a lot of people come from such a retrogressive perspective that they expect affirmation for taking a step or two forward when they have miles left to go.

It is commendable that SBTS is making an effort to more-clearly assess its trouble past, and I think you make a good point when you observe that we are all in different places. But when you lobby for more understanding and equanimity from their critics, it sounds like you are saying, “Hey, let’s cut them some slack now because–even though they are still pretty racist–they are slightly less racist than they used to be.” It’s unrealistic to expect people to treat dogmatic racists kindly just because they’re trying to be less racist about their dogma, especially when they’re still hurting people with their slightly-less-toxic racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and nationalism.

I know some of the folks who wrote the SBTS statement and I can attest to their integrity and serious commitment to racial reconciliation.  Justin, what do you want them to stop doing? Seriously, would you rather they not have written the report? Are their past sins so great that cannot be redeemed? (I don’t think you believe this). These folks know the work is not done.

As far as I know, no one at SBTS is “expecting affirmation” for the statement. So far they have been quiet about the criticism they are getting. (By the way, when I say I know these folks I do not mean Al Mohler. Frankly, I am afraid he will open his mouth and make things worse. I am referring instead to some of the historians who authored the document).

I have defended the SBTS publicly because I felt someone had to do it. I don’t want to “cut them slack,” I want to encourage my fellow evangelicals to walk with them on the journey. Of course we will all be watching to see where they go next.

In the end, I think SBTS is going to have to turn for help to people with whom they might have theological disagreements.  Non-conservative evangelical Christians have more experience on this front.  For example, what might it look like if SBTS takes a meeting with Chris Graham and his racial reconciliation committee at St. Paul’s Episcopalian Church in Richmond, the so-called “Cathedral of the Confederacy?” Of course SBTS will never embrace St. Paul’s progressive liberal theology, but they can certainly learn from the way this historic church has tried to deal with its racist past.

I understand that progressive Christians want more out of this statement. Many have suffered as a result of the Southern Baptist Convention’s racist past. This should not be ignored. There is time and space to be angry, but I am a Christian and I cannot dwell in anger any more than I can dwell in fear.

Right now progressive Christians should be getting on the phone and calling SBTS to ask how they can help the seminary on its journey.  Isn’t this the kind of work progressive evangelicals want to do?  Instead, they are criticizing the seminary in public and on social media.

I tend to view the SBTS statement through the eyes of hope.  And God knows we could use more hope in the world right now.

Churches and the Legacy of Racism: A Tale of Two Congregations

Interior_of_St._Pauls_Episcopal_Church_Richmond_VA_2013_8759347988-e1443705658980

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Richmond, VA

Back in June, I wrote a post about the 150th anniversary of the founding of First Baptist Church in Dallas, the congregation led by court evangelical Robert Jeffress.  In that post I referenced Tobin Grant’s 2016 Religion News Service piece on the long history of racial segregation at First Baptist. Daniel Silliman’s piece at Religion Dispatches is also worth a look.

Here is the 150th anniversary video that the congregation has been promoting:

A few comments:

  1.  The narrative revolves around three authoritarian clergymen:  George Truett, W.A. Criswell, and Robert Jeffress.
  2. It says nothing about the fact that the Southern Baptist Church was formed because southern Baptists defended slavery and white supremacy.
  3. It says nothing about Truett’s and Criswell’s commitment to racial segregation and Jim Crow.
  4. It does include an image of Robert Jeffress with Donald Trump.  Let’s remember that Jeffress defended Trump last year after the POTUS equated white supremacists and those protesting against white supremacy in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Rather than taking a hard look at its past, First Baptist-Dallas has whitewashed it.

I thought about this June 2018 post a couple of weeks ago when I had the privilege of teaching the Adult Faith Formation class at St. Paul’s Episcopalian Church in Richmond, Virginia.  St. Paul’s occupies and amazing building in the heart of Richmond.  It is located across the street from the Virginia State Capitol and adjacent to the Virginia Supreme Court.  The church was founded in 1844.

During the Civil War, when Richmond served as the Confederate capital, both Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis worshiped at St. Paul’s.   After the war, the church used its windows to tell the story of the Lost Cause.  It is often described as the “Cathedral of the Confederacy.”

But unlike First Baptist-Dallas, St. Paul’s decided to come to grips with its racist past.  In 2015, the church began its “History and Reconciliation Initiative” (HRI) with the goal of tracing and acknowledging the racial history of the congregation in order to “repair, restore, and seek reconciliation with God each other and the broader community.”  I encourage you to visit the HRI website to read more about the way St. Paul’s is trying to come to grips with the darker sides of its past.

Public historian Christopher Graham, who co-chairs the HRI when he is not curating an exhibit at The American Civil War Museum, invited me to Richmond to speak.  He is doing some amazing work at the intersection of public history and religion.

When I think about St. Paul’s, I am reminded of Jurgen Moltmann’s call to “waken the dead and piece together what has been broken.”  It is also refreshing to see the words “repair” and “restore” used in conjunction with the word “reconciliation” instead of “Christian America.”

Southern Baptists, and American evangelicals more broadly, may immediately conclude that they have little in common theologically with St. Paul’s Episcopalian Church in Richmond and can thus dismiss the congregation’s history-related efforts as just another social justice project propagated by theological liberals.  But this would be a shame.  They can learn a lot from this congregation about how to take a deep and honest look into the mirror of the past.

The History of the “Conservative Resurgence” in the Southern Baptist Convention

UneasyI am not a scholar of religion in the American South.  Nor am I an expert on the Southern Baptists or the so-called “conservative resurgence” in the 1980s.  But ever since I started writing posts about this whole Paige Patterson mess, people (mostly non-Southern Baptists) have been asking me for good books on the history of the conservative takeover of the Convention.

What scholarly books would you recommend on this subject?  Here are a few that I have found helpful over the years:

Nancy Ammerman, Baptist Battles

Barry Hankins, Uneasy in Babylon

Barry Hankins and Thomas Kidd, Baptists in America: A History

Albert Mohler: “The judgment of God…has now come to the house of the Southern Baptist Convention”

mohler

Mohler is the president of Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville.  He has responded in writing to the whole Paige Patterson mess.  He continues to defend complementarianism, and I am not sure why he will not name Patterson by name, but this is a start.

Here is a taste of his website post:

The last few weeks have been excruciating for the Southern Baptist Convention and for the larger evangelical movement. It is as if bombs are dropping and God alone knows how many will fall and where they will land.

America’s largest evangelical denomination has been in the headlines day after day. The SBC is in the midst of its own horrifying #MeToo moment.

At one of our seminaries, controversy has centered on a president (now former president) whose sermon illustration from years ago included advice that a battered wife remain in the home and the marriage in hope of the conversion of her abusive husband. Other comments represented the objectification of a teenage girl. The issues only grew more urgent with the sense that the dated statements represented ongoing advice and counsel.

But the issues are far deeper and wider.

Sexual misconduct is as old as sin, but the avalanche of sexual misconduct that has come to light in recent weeks is almost too much to bear. These grievous revelations of sin have occurred in churches, in denominational ministries, and even in our seminaries.

We thought this was a Roman Catholic problem. The unbiblical requirement of priestly celibacy and the organized conspiracy of silence within the hierarchy helped to explain the cesspool of child sex abuse that has robbed the Roman Catholic Church of so much of its moral authority. When people said that Evangelicals had a similar crisis coming, it didn’t seem plausible — even to me. I have been president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for twenty-five years. I did not see this coming.

I was wrong. The judgment of God has come.

Judgment has now come to the house of the Southern Baptist Convention. The terrible swift sword of public humiliation has come with a vengeance. There can be no doubt that this story is not over.

We cannot blame a requirement of priestly celibacy. We cannot even point to an organized conspiracy of silence within the denominational hierarchy. No, our humiliation comes as a result of an unorganized conspiracy of silence. Sadly, the unorganized nature of our problem may make recovery and correction even more difficult and the silence even more dangerous.

Is the problem theological? Has the Conservative Resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention come to this? Is this what thousands of Southern Baptists were hoping for when they worked so hard to see this denomination returned to its theological convictions, its seminaries return to teaching the inerrancy of the Holy Scriptures, its ministries solidly established on the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Did we win confessional integrity only to sacrifice our moral integrity?

This is exactly what those who opposed the Conservative Resurgence warned would happen. They claimed that the effort to recover the denomination theologically was just a disguised move to capture the denomination for a new set of power-hungry leaders. I know that was not true. I must insist that this was not true. But, it sure looks like their prophecies had some merit after all. As I recently said with lament to a long-time leader among the more liberal faction that left the Southern Baptist Convention, each side has become the fulfillment of what the other side warned. The liberals who left have kept marching to the Left, in theology and moral teaching. The SBC, solidly conservative theologically, has been revealed to be morally compromised.

Read the entire piece here.

Patterson is out as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, but he has been given a golden parachute that includes directorship of a new center on campus, a cushy home on campus, and a new post as “theologian in residence.”  As someone on Facebook wrote: “He is still in and comfortable.”

Thoughts on Michael Gerson’s “The Last Temptation”: Part 2

Last temptation

Read Part 1 of this series here.  Read Gerson’s Atlantic piece here.

Anyone who reads my work knows that I am a big fan of George Marsden‘s essay “Human Depravity: A Neglected Explanatory Category” in Wilfred McClay’s ed., Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past (Eerdmans, 2007).  In this essay, Marsden writes: “Of all traditional Christian teachings the doctrine of original sin or of pervasive human depravity has the most empirical verification.  The modern world, rather than undercutting this doctrine, seems to increasingly confirm it.”

In Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past, I argued that the Judeo-Christian tradition teaches that all human beings are created in God’s image and thus have value, worth, and dignity.  More specifically, the Christian faith teaches that all human beings–past and present–are important because Jesus Christ died for their sins.  People have dignity because they are eligible for redemption.  For Christians, history should drive us to hope in the eschatological culmination of our redemption. It should instill in us a longing for a time when there will be no more sin and suffering.

Sin, the imago Dei, and the Christian understanding of hope and redemption inform my work as a historian.  When I do my work I should not be surprised that human beings are flawed and do horrible things.  I should also not be surprised when men and women perform acts that might be described as heroic or just.  Such acts bear witness to the fact that they are created in God’s image.  The most serious and devout evangelicals have sinned.  They have failed to live according to New Testament standards.  The most serious and devout evangelicals have lived-out their faith in acts of mercy, justice, and love.  Yes and yes.

In his Atlantic piece, “The Last Temptation,” Michael Gerson discusses the first half of the 19th-century as a time when evangelicals led social reform movements to end slavery.  We could also add other reform movements to his story, including efforts to curb the negative effects of alcohol, the crusade to win the vote for women, the movement to reform prisons, and the evangelical commitment to the education of urban young people through Sunday Schools.  All of these reform movements had roots in the genuine desire of “revived” evangelicals (products of the Second Great Awakening) to apply their faith to public life.

But let’s not forget that evangelicals were also, often at the very same time, involved heavily in some of the darker moments in the American past.  They were trying to limit Catholic immigration out of fear that Catholic immigrants would undermine their Protestant nation.  The Southern ministers and laypersons who experienced intense revivals in Confederate army camps were, in many cases, the same people constructing a sophisticated biblical and theological argument in defense of slavery.

Gerson needs to be careful about asking us to return to an evangelical golden age when all born-again and revived Christians were truly living-out the justice-oriented message of Jesus.  His historical analysis in this piece is only half right.  But having said that, I am willing to give him a pass since there is only so much one can do in an essay format.  As I said in my first post in this series, “The Last Temptation” is a very good piece.

More to come.

The Author’s Corner with John Hayes

51eS3fj0YsL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_John Hayes is associate professor of History at Augusta University. This interview is based on his new book, Hard, Hard Religion: Interracial Faith in the Poor South (The University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Hard, Hard Religion?

JH: The original idea was to see if, as a Southern historian, I could find real-world evidence for the imaginative landscape of Flannery O’Connor’s fiction—if I could demonstrate that O’Connor, with her literary insight, had evoked something real but perhaps opaque to historians. As I moved into the project, I realized that the type of Christianity embodied in her middle-class characters was well analyzed in the historiography; it was the Christianity of her poor characters (her primary characters) that had little presence in the scholarship beyond a few hints and fragments. The book is my attempt to excavate this distinct Christianity of the poor and to interpret it in its context.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Hard, Hard Religion?

JH: In the circumscribed world of the New South, poor whites and poor blacks exchanged songs, stories, lore, visual displays, and other cultural forms with each other, crafting a distinct folk Christianity that spoke from the underside of regional capitalism. Their folk Christianity was a fragile but real space of interracial exchange and a fervent attempt to grasp the sacred in earthy, this-worldly ways.

JF: Why do we need to read Hard, Hard Religion?

JH: 

* It’s the first historical monograph on folk Christianity in the American South.

* In the face of a culture that continues the well-established tradition of denigrating and dismissing the poor, it shows the inner complexity, cultural creativity, and rich interiority of the poor of a certain time and place.

* It complicates what we think we know about religious life in the American South, especially by debunking the abiding trope of religious homogeneity on either side of the color line.

* In the face of scholarship that insists that Jim Crow was the culture of the New South, it argues for the fragile but real presence of interracial religious exchange among the poor.

* Where else, in the pages of a single volume, can you read about haunting songs of personified Death, anti-Mammon odes to the Titanic, and praying spots deep in the woods; about cows kneeling in reverence on Old Christmas night, graves decorated with bedsteads and grandfather clocks, and initiates emerging from imminent death to the sights and sounds of bright green trees and birds chirping away?

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

JH: I had an a-ha moment a few years after college: I realized that history was a way to take the abstract philosophical/theological questions that obsessed me and pursue them in concrete, tangible form—to explore the “big questions” not in open potentiality but in flesh-and-blood actuality. That was the initial impulse, but as I’ve worked as a historian I’ve also come to see another impulse that was there at the outset, but subconsciously: history is crucial for understanding identity. Nothing falls from the sky; everything has a story behind it. I’ve driven to seek the stories behind our society so that I can make sense of it. To know the past is to get a handle on the present.

JF: What is your next project?

JH: It’s very much in the coalescing stage, but I want to look at religion in “moments of possibility” before and after the circumscribed world of Hard, Hard Religion: in Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement. In both moments, sacralized social structures were being destabilized, and new religious conceptions had to emerge—though what exactly they would look like was very much an open question. That’s a very different context from my book, where poor people carve out meaning within stable, confining social structures.

JF: Thanks, John!

The Author’s Corner with Donald Mathews

Altar Cover.jpgDonald Mathews is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  This interview is based on his new book At the Altar of Lynching: Burning Sam Hose in the American South (Cambridge University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write At the Altar of Lynching?

DM: In preparing to write a sequel to Religion in the Old South, I realized that lynching and religious participation in institutions, collective action, and media were increasing at the same time. I discovered an article by a former minister’s wife, Corra Harris, defending the lynching of a laborer called Sam Hose in 1899. At about the same time I was asked to write an essay on why I [born in Idaho] wrote about religion in the South. The short answer was, I realized: “Because my grandfather was lynched for defending a black family from being lynched.” He wasn’t exactly “lynched,” to be sure, because he survived a beating that damaged his brain, soul, and wealth. My father, however, remembered the event as a “lynching” and his family lived with the psychological fallout from my grandfather’s encounter with American populism and violence. Christians had seized him at prayer and destroyed his life. I thought I should think about Harris’s defense of violence within the context of her religious life and that of people like her.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of At the Altar of Lynching?

DM: Religion enveloped the burning of Tom Wilkes: participants lived it, they shouted it, they enacted it in a grotesque carnival of violence and celebration. Tom Wilkes was not Christ, but his burning as Sam Hose was supposed to resolve matters far beyond and above homicide and rape: black equality, black autonomy, black defiance: His burning was thus a sacrifice to the savage god of White Supremacy.

JF: Why do we need to read At the Altar of Lynching?

DM: “Need” is subjective and I find it difficult to tell anyone what they need. I do invite them

* To understand the historical background of violence against African Americans;

* To understand the religious character of segregation as Lillian Smith understood it;

* To understand how the culture of White Supremacy criminalized black people, used sex and gender to create lies about American society and blacks, and how popular white religion was caught up in those lies;

* To think about how people of African descent condemned the lies told about them, how they were so alienated from the white-controlled “criminal justice system” built on those lies that they could see the execution even of those who were actually guilty of capital crimes as “crucifixions”;

* To understand why W E B Du Bois and concerned white clerics thought of lynching as “crucifixion”;

* To understand how the human compulsion to make signal acts as meaningful as possible even when they are illegal reveals the human capacity for making religious even the most heinous acts imaginable.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

DM: In college I was always interested in American history; I can’t explain the why of that. In seminary, I was transfixed by the implications of two things Helmut Richard Niebuhr said in class: 1) The first question to be asked when addressing ethical issues, he noted, was “What is/was happening?” 2) When we think of the meaning of the Cross and crucifixion, he once said, we have to sift that meaning through the “Gas ovens. . .” That second comment is one of the most penetrating observations I have ever heard. The first one was prelude. I have to add, I suppose as confession, that I fully understand the homiletic style of my writing. Gene Genovese in a passing conversation once asked me partially in jest, partially in criticism, “Are you ever going to stop preaching?” I answered as I laughed, “No. I guess not.” He replied, “I didn’t think so.” And we went off to a seminar at the National Humanities Center.

JF: What is your next project?

DM: I hope to think about how the memory of violence against a loved one or family member affects those who struggle with its effects. There is a growing number of important books or articles on the memory of lynching, and I need to read as many as I can and come to terms with them. I suspect this is an article, but it could be a small book. I had thought to follow up on an article I wrote about the suicide of a Methodist minister in 1910 as a way to get inside the traumas of “modernity” and I may still do that.

JF: Thanks, Donald!

Crowdsourcing Report: Best Books on the Lost Cause

Van WoodwardYou asked and the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home delivered:

David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory

Ed Blum, Forging the White Republic: Race, Religion and American Nationalism, 1865-1898

W. Fitz Brundage, The Southern Past: A Clash of Race and Memory

W. Fitz Brundage, ed., Where These Memories Grow: History, Memory, and Southern Identity

James C. Cobb, Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity

Karen Cox, Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture

Gaines Foster, Ghost of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South, 1865-1913

Gary Gallagher,  ed., The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History

Caroline Janney, Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation

James Louwen and Edward Sebasta, The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader: The Great Truth About the “Lost Cause.”

Ann Marshall, Creating a Confederate Kentucky: The Lost Cause and Civil War Memory in a Border State

Micki McElya: Clinging to Mammy: The Faithful Slave in Twentieth-Century America

Kirk Savage, Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America

Ron Rash, The World Made Straight (Novel)

Anne Sarah Rubin, A Shattered Nation: The Rise and Fall of the Confederacy, 1861-1868

Charles Reagan Wilson, Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865-1920

C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow

Russell Moore Channels Jess Moody: A Southern Baptist Story

Dr._Russell_D._MooreHe was one of the Trump’s strongest critics during the presidential election, but it was just too much for the Southern Baptist Convention.

Over at CNN’s STATE, Chris Moody tells Moore’s story and compares it to the story of his grandfather, a Southern Baptist preacher who criticized the Convention for upholding segregation. It’s worth your time.

Here is a taste:

Nearly 50 years ago, my grandfather found himself in a very Moore-esque situation. At the 1969 Southern Baptist Pastors Conference, he railed against racial segregation, which was still enforced at some churches.

Questions of race have long dogged the Southern Baptist Convention, which was formed in 1845 over the issue of slavery, on which the Southern Baptists were on the wrong side of history. Even well into the twentieth century, the denomination did not take a leadership role in speaking against civil rights abuses and Jim Crow.

“I’ve been loyal to this convention for the past 25 years and I intend that every breath I take of God’s free air will be a Baptist breath,” Moody said in 1969. “But you listen. It takes the black and the white keys to play the Star Spangled Banner. And you can’t do it without both. We must solve the problem of racial hatred within the next ten years or prepare to become the dinosaurs of the twenty-first century. I for one do not believe that God intended this denomination to be a humorless relic in the museum of tomorrow.”

My grandfather is 91 now. His sermon, which also excoriated fellow Christians who supported the ongoing Vietnam War, was met with faint applause.

The denomination grappled internally over racial issues throughout the twentieth century and finally issued a formal apology for its past racist policies in 1995.

But when Southern Baptists gathered in 2017, they still found themselves scratching at the scars of the past. And, in an interesting twist, Moore was on hand to help confront them.

Read the entire piece here.

Author’s Corner with Joseph Locke

joseph lockeJoseph Locke is Associate Professor of American History at the University of Houston-Victoria. This interview is based on his new book, Making the Bible Belt: Texas Prohibitionists and the Politicization of Southern Religion (Oxford University Press, 2017). 

JF: What led you to write Making the Bible Belt: Texas Prohibitionists and the Politicization of Southern Religion?

JL: While reading up on economic radicalism in Progressive Era Texas—I’d become enamored with Lawrence Goodwyn’s old book on the Texas Populists as an undergrad and had wanted to follow up on that story—I was struck by the utter dominance of prohibition as a political issue. For well over a decade, it seemed as if Texans and many others across the South could talk about little more than alcohol and drunkenness and saloons. My interest was already piqued—I grew up around teetotaling Baptists—but the more I read the more I realized something bigger was at stake. Prohibition wasn’t just about liquor; I was seeing a revolution in the way that white southern evangelicals conceived of their faith. And I was also, simultaneously, witnessing the death of an older tradition, a veritable culture of anticlericalism that I hadn’t expected to find in the South. Nothing I had read in the historiography of southern religion, for instance, prepared me for the over-the-top, anticlerical rhetoric of so many prominent anti-prohibitionists. And so I went to work trying to make sense of it all. 

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Making the Bible Belt: Texas Prohibitionists and the Politicization of Southern Religion?

JL: That we’ve taken the marriage of religion and public life in the South for granted. The politicization of southern religion was a historical process—religious activists built up new institutional and cultural resources, redefined the bounds of their faith, waged war against a culture of anticlericalism, and churned notions of history, race, gender, and religion into a political movement that created much of the Bible Belt we know today. 

JF: Why do we need to read Making the Bible Belt: Texas Prohibitionists and the Politicization of Southern Religion?

JL: The “Bible Belt” was not the inevitable consequence of white evangelicals’ numerical strength in the South. Instead, religious activists waged a purposeful, conspicuous, and controversial decades-long campaign to redefine their faith and inject themselves into public life. However much white religious leaders exerted themselves to defend slavery, secession, the Confederacy, and “Redemption,” tangible cultural and institutional limits still constricted the scope of religious thought and practice in the South at the turn of the twentieth century. Understanding the shattering of those limits complicates the narrative of southern religious history, offers insights into the historical relationship between religion and politics, and puts today’s melding of region and religion into historical context. 

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

JL: I grew up enamored with history and, as an undergrad, I took the advice to “major in what you love” without really knowing where it would lead. Luckily, inertia took care of the rest. 

JF: What is your next project?

JL: I’m juggling a few things: I’m wrapping up a long-gestating, comprehensive history of religion in Texas; I’m working to get The American Yawp, a massively collaborative, open-source American History textbook, ready for its forthcoming (spring 2018) publication with a major university press; and, in the meantime, I’m spending the remainder of the summer in Chicago researching the follow-up to a forthcoming article that explores Americans’ moral imaginings of Mexican immigrants and the U.S.-Mexico borderlands at the turn of the twentieth century. 

JF: Thanks, Joseph!

                                     

Churches and the Legacy of the Confederacy

Lee Episcopalian

R.E. Lee Memorial Church, Lexington, VA

As we reported last week, the Southern Baptist Convention stumbled, but eventually managed to get its act together and condemn racism and the Alt-right at its annual convention last week.  The Southern Baptist Church is the largest Protestant denomination in the United States.  It was founded in 1845 by Baptists in the South who defended slavery.

Over at Christianity Today, Kate Shellnut reports on how historic Southern congregations of all denominations are dealing with their monuments to the Confederacy.

“Few public Confederate monuments have been changed, moved, or razed since 2015,” USA Today reported, estimating 700 to 1,000 such monuments remain across 31 states. “While flags can be lowered, songs censored, mascots switched, and schools renamed, monuments are the most tangible and least mutable memorial symbols.”

The debate over such markers inevitably involves the church buildings that housed—and the many more that later memorialized—the history of the Confederate States of America. The most striking example may be St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia, nicknamed the Cathedral of the Confederacy.

Over the past two years, the historic church, where Jefferson Davis learned that the war was coming to an end, decided to remove plaques honoring Lee and Davis and place them in an exhibit. Gone are the kneelers with the Confederate flag in needlepoint. The church will retire its coat of arms. Leaders are now discussing how to move forward with presenting a history that acknowledges racism and slavery in its past.

“It shouldn’t take a tragedy to turn the tide against racism. Why did it take the murder of nine black people in a Bible study for some people to finally reject the racism associated with the Confederate emblem? Why do people have to literally be killed before we confront racial prejudice?” asked Jemar Tisby, president of the Reformed African American Network. “Christian leaders should be able to challenge racism in the midst of the church without waiting for a public disaster as an entry point to conversation.”

Read the entire piece here.