The Baptist Headway
America’s Largest Protestant Denomination & the Culture War
by Russell D. Moore
Southern Baptist cultural engagement has been something like country musician Loretta Lynn’s first visit to the Nixon White House. Greeting the president in the reception line, Lynn reportedly blurted out, “Good morning, Richard.” When horrified White House personnel informed her later that she should not have referred to the president by his first name, Lynn is said to have replied, “Well, they called Jesus ‘Jesus,’ didn’t they?”
The counterculture celebrated her words as a feminist-populist protest against hierarchical distinctions. In fact, the coal miner’s daughter simply didn’t know what else to say. When confronted with American sexual libertarianism and public-square secularization, Southern Baptists committed to biblical orthodoxy have spoken reflexively from intuitions rooted in a biblically informed worldview. They were not pushing a “religious right” political program. They just didn’t know what else to say.
For the past twenty-five years, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), has been at the front of the conservative activist response to the culture wars. On everything from abortion to creationism, from school vouchers to sexual differences, the SBC has been insistently opposed to the social policies of the American left.
This stems from the convention’s abrupt reversal in the late 1970s from a mainline Protestant denomination steeped at its upper levels in the “progressive” theology of the Protestant left to a conservative Evangelical denomination committed to a confessional identity rooted in the authority of Scripture and in the recovery of a centuries-long Baptist tradition. Baptist confessions of faith have differed very little since the beginning of the Baptist movement in the seventeenth century when it comes both to the “fundamentals of the faith” and to the ecclesial particularities of the Baptist faith.
Conservatives pointed out that the leaders of the denomination simply didn’t agree with the confessional stance of virtually all Baptists at all times on matters such as biblical inerrancy against contemporary notions such as the “documentary hypothesis” of the origins of the Pentateuch and the rejection of Pauline authorship of the Pastoral Epistles.
Pointing to the media hype about Southern Baptist culture warriors, Baptist liberals joined with secular observers to argue that the Southern Baptist controversies over biblical inerrancy and confessional orthodoxy were all along really about partisan politics rather than theological fidelity. After all, the “conservative resurgence” coincided in the late 1970s and early 1980s with Margaret Thatcher’s ascendancy in Great Britain, the Reagan revolution in the United States, and the mobilization of Evangelicals into a “Moral Majority” political force in every state of the union.
In his book Uneasy in Babylon, Baylor University scholar Barry Hankins asserts that Southern Baptist conservatives fought the inerrancy controversy in a political quest to “save America,” as they were threatened by the secularization of American society. In the New York Review of Books and in speeches across the country, commentator Bill Moyers, a one-time SBC seminary student, links conservative Southern Baptists to the fringe theonomist movements that seek to establish an American theocracy based on Mosaic Law.
Others whisper that Southern Baptist resolutions on the right to life, voluntary school prayer, and a strong national defense were coordinated by conservative White House operatives in the shadows of the skyboxes above the annual convention meetings. Indeed, the opponents of SBC conservatism have so consistently charged the SBC leadership with having a partisan political motive that when the convention briefly mulled over changing its name a couple of years ago, one wag suggested “the Republican Baptist Convention.”
And yet the SBC’s cultural engagement was hardly conspiratorial or partisan. It was rooted not in some overarching political strategy, but most often in an Evangelical intuitionism—a sense of what ought to be, without a corresponding theoretical explanation of why—that quite often turned out to be right.
Southern Baptists were not co-opted by Republican politicians or professional culture warriors. As they reflected on their deeply held commitments to a biblical worldview and Evangelical conversionism, they found allies in others who understood that the culture wars were about more than just “culture” in the abstract but about issues directly related to Christian worship and submission to biblical authority.
In other words, when confronted with a culture hostile to the biblical understanding of the good and the true, biblically orthodox Southern Baptists spoke reflexively from intuitions rooted in a biblically informed worldview and joined with those who thought similarly. They just didn’t know what else to say.
Southern Baptists did not seek to join a “religious right” political movement. But as they sought to recover a confessional identity that had been lost, the cultural and political liberalism of their denominational leaders pointed out just how theologically alienated the bureaucracy in Nashville was from the churches that supported it from their offering plates. Thus, Southern Baptist conservatives often spoke of so-called cultural issues as illustrative of the kind of reformation they sought to see, not simply in society, but in Baptist churches.
Moreover, as the culture shifted to more and more overt stages of social revolution, they were alarmed by the destructive effects of this revolution on their ability to evangelize the world and to rear their children toward conformity with Christ. They became socially and politically engaged not as culture warriors but as evangelists.
By some accounts, the Southern Baptist emphasis on evangelism and personal regeneration might have suppressed cultural and political engagement. After all, early-twentieth-century Protestant liberals had contrasted a “social gospel” of societal transformation with the “individualism” of fundamentalist “obsession” with the new birth. Later, liberationist theologies contrasted Hegelian-Marxist ideology and identity politics against such Great Commission “individualism.”
And yet, mainline Protestant churches have become havens of the most strikingly individualistic New Age spiritualities. Yes, the denominational bureaucracies are putting out position papers on the “Christian” position on the Artic National Wildlife Refuge. But the church members are walking in labyrinths, chanting pseudo-Celtic nature psalms, and listening to “Chicken Soup for the Presbyterian Soul” week-by-week from the pulpit.
Southern Baptists’ core commitment to the necessity of personal regeneration, however, has mandated social action, since regeneration is not an isolated doctrine, but is part of an entire body of doctrinal concerns. Being a “born again” Christian means that one is committed to a truth claim about the coming kingdom of God, and the place of humanity in it. Thus, Southern Baptist emphasis on regeneration creates Southern Baptist activism in the public square.
Abortion & Segregation
On abortion, for instance, it is true that the SBC took an officially “pro-choice” stance on abortion in the early years before and after Roe v. Wade—in convention resolutions that were still being quoted by Southern Baptist Bill Clinton as he vetoed legislation restricting partial-birth abortion, even though convention resolutions are intended to speak only for the convention gathered in the particular year the resolution is passed and are not “binding” in any sense on future conventions or individual Baptists.
What is less known is the fact that these resolutions were rather craftily worded by pro-abortion convention bureaucrats to include opposition to abortion “as birth control” while keeping abortion legal for the “health”—including the psychological “health”—of the woman. In other words, they had the practical effect of putting the convention on record as supporting Roe v. Wade and opposing restrictions on abortion. This was long before Evangelicals were wise to these schemes.
Even when Southern Baptists became energized against abortion—largely through the pioneering work of Presbyterian Francis Schaeffer—there was never a Baptist counterpart to Evangelium vitae. When conservatives explained the issues to grassroots Southern Baptists, they instinctively knew who was right, as did Roman Catholics, but were without the theologically sophisticated encyclicals and pronouncements the Vatican was able to contribute to the intellectual debate.
After all, Southern Baptists’ Sunday-school lessons had told them that it was John—not an embryonic forerunner of the Baptist, not a “piece of tissue”—who leaped for joy in his mother’s womb at the presence of a pregnant Mary. And he did so in the presence of his Christ, not a fetal potential Messiah.
This intuitive engagement on the pro-life side of the culture wars should have come as no surprise. This is, after all, precisely the same pattern that led Southern Baptists to take the right side in the civil rights question. The cause of racial equality succeeded in the SBC precisely because Southern Baptist leaders—whatever their personal theological beliefs—appealed to a thoroughly conservative theological system of beliefs.
The SBC was pro-integration—including pro- Brown v. Board of Education—from the 1950s onward. In 1965, even as the South was plagued with controversy over civil rights, the convention voted to “pledge ourselves to provide positive leadership in our communities, seeking through conciliation and understanding to obtain peaceful compliance with laws assuring equal rights for all.” The resolution further expressed commitment to “go beyond these laws in the practice of Christian love.”
Yes, SBC liberals like Clarence Jordan, Henlee Barnette, and Foy Valentine led the way on the race issue, and heroically so. But how were they able to transform conservatives? They did so by appealing to biblical authority and the Great Commission, to shame segregationists and potential segregationists for their hypocrisy in the face of biblical truth.
They appealed to Southern Baptists’ deeply held beliefs that the new birth makes no partiality among persons and that the gospel is freely offered to all people everywhere in the world. They exposed the hypocrisy of Southern Baptists sending mission money to Africa when they wouldn’t allow justice for African-Americans in their own country. Southern Baptists with Bibles on their laps and Bible verses seared in their minds and consciences couldn’t help but agree that white supremacy—whatever its claims to “biblical” foundations—was not of the spirit of Christ revealed in the Old and New Testaments.
Baptist Sex & Gender
This exact same dynamic is at work in Southern Baptist skirmishes with the reigning cultural models of gender and sexuality. In 1998 and 2000, Southern Baptists revised their confession of faith, the Baptist Faith and Message, to include, among other things, statements on the biblical pattern of the family. The most controversial plank of this revision was a phrase taken virtually verbatim from the pages of the New Testament: that husbands were to love their wives, and wives were to submit to their husbands.
While television Today Show anchor Katie Couric and others announced this in fearful tones as an anti-feminist “backlash,” Southern Baptists couldn’t understand what all the controversy was about, given the obvious joys and wisdom of biblical patterns of marriage and sexuality. They were even more surprised by the reaction of some fellow Baptists who seemed to be embarrassed by the statement. One leader of the moderate-led Baptist General Convention of Texas denounced the marriage clause as a “Neanderthal” statement (I suppose holding to an extremely early dating of the Epistle to the Ephesians).
This complementarian pattern of marriage and church life has always been preached in Southern Baptist churches—not as part of any “backlash” but simply because it is just there throughout the New Testament Scriptures.
Moreover, some have accused Southern Baptists of being “obsessed” with homosexuality, because the issue is constantly addressed in convention resolutions and in the churches themselves. But Southern Baptists would insist that it is the culture—both in its institutions and in its pop advocacy across the airwaves—that is “obsessed” with mainstreaming same-sex eroticism.
Southern Baptists do not oppose homosexuality so strongly simply because our moral values are outraged by the indecency of it all; nor is it simply because we believe it to be contrary to the biblical mandate for human sexuality (although that is certainly true). Rather, in the current push for homosexuality in the Will and Grace culture of twenty-first-century America, Southern Baptists hear another gospel: an evangel of biological determinism and redemption through surrender to the inevitable urgings of undeniable sexual feelings.
This is merely a repeat of the serpentine lie from Eden, “You will not surely die.” Since those who practice unrepentant homosexuality “will not inherit the kingdom of God,” the stakes are high not just for the culture we are seeking to evangelize but for some in our own churches.
It was not outside political organizing (much less any detailed political philosophy) that led Southern Baptists to engage the culture. Instead, it was a biblically informed, evangelistically directed intuitionism that led a historically isolated denomination to link arms with like-minded Evangelicals and Catholics to articulate a defense of the “permanent things.” While this intuitionist impulse has served Southern Baptists well in recent years, it also carries with it a series of dangers that Southern Baptists must recognize and overcome.
First of all, we must remember that Southern Baptist intuitionism relied on a theology of revelational authority and personal regeneration. This is why even the weakest of churches had members who could recognize the heresies of white supremacy and sexual libertarianism. They had a foundation of biblical content that warned them against such things. This is endangered by a growing tendency among Evangelicals, including Southern Baptists, to disconnect the pulpit and educational ministries of churches from strong biblical content.
Evangelical Sunday-school classes often translate the Scriptures into moralistic categories devoid of the biblical storyline so that, for instance, Jesus’ multiplication of the loaves and fishes becomes a lesson in the goodness of sharing, or the story of the Noahic flood becomes a lesson on proper pet care. At the same time, many of our pulpits translate the Scriptures into therapeutic categories equally devoid of the biblical storyline so that, for instance, Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well becomes a lesson on the importance of “transparent” communication.
The result is that many church members may have a “life verse,” but they cannot see how individual passages fit with the comprehensive storyline of the biblical revelation. When people do not know Scripture, all they have left to guide their actions is the culture.
Exhibit A is the Southern Baptist capitulation on divorce and remarriage. The therapeutic captivity of so much Southern Baptist preaching effected a subtle turn away from the clear biblical foundation of the irrevocable, covenantal nature of marriage toward a well-intentioned attempt to “meet the needs” of a growing divorced population. The end result is that “single again” is now just one more niche in our Southern Baptist Sunday schools, and we are divorcing at the same rate as the rest of the culture.
The same danger is present on the issue of sexual differences. While Southern Baptists agree in theory on male headship in the church and home, it is difficult to see how we can sustain this while Southern Baptist men stream to Bible teaching events featuring high-profile women expounding and explaining a biblical text—doing, in fact, what every generation of Evangelicals before us would have called “preaching.”
Moreover, the Southern Baptist countercultural influence can only last beyond the present generation if Southern Baptist pastors spend time in their pulpits presenting a biblical case for patriarchy, pointing out that the biblical teaching commands more than refusing to let a female name follow the title “Reverend.”
A New Grid
This is why intuitionism alone cannot sustain Southern Baptists. We cannot simply proof-text the wrongness of homosexuality when our members already tacitly disagree with Jesus and the apostles on other aspects of marriage and sexuality. We must intentionally ground Christians in the vision of Scripture as it applies to every aspect of reality, giving to them a new theological grid through which they view the world, as opposed to the continuously morphing grid of popular culture.
This will not only fuel cultural and political engagement, it will also save us from the very real danger of a purely political self-identity. It would be a tragedy to have Evangelicals who agree on the re-election of a president but disagree on whether faith in Christ is necessary for salvation or whether God knows what is going to happen in the future.
Southern Baptists have not been co-opted by the Republican party—just abandoned by an increasingly hostile Democratic party. But when people have no theological identity, they are in real danger of becoming a caucus group or constituency of a political party in a way that can obscure the Great Commission, and even the gospel itself. Theologically informed Southern Baptists ought to be able to understand the difference between Republican George W. Bush and Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Thankfully, the future of Southern Baptist churches in confronting these challenges looks promising. The seminaries are producing young pastors and missionaries who are committed to rigorous biblical proclamation, robust confessional orthodoxy, and radically countercultural evangelism and discipleship. The next generation seems to understand that Christians must confront a darkening culture not simply with direct-mail campaigns and slicker advertisements, but by grounding churches in what Southern Baptists have always believed: the authority of Scripture and the necessity of the new birth.
This is precisely why the SBC conservative resurgence was a happy occurrence for cultural renewal and Evangelical engagement: It reasserted the gospel with clarity and conviction. With this the case, the hope for the Southern Baptist future is not a “Southern Baptist political philosophy,” but a battalion of church members who know the gospel, know the culture, and know the difference between the two.
Letters Welcome: One of the reasons Touchstone exists is to encourage conversation among Christians, so we welcome letters responding to articles or raising matters of interest to our readers. However, because the space is limited, please keep your letters under 400 words. All letters may be edited for space and clarity when necessary. firstname.lastname@example.org
“The Baptist Headway” first appeared in the April 2006 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
An introductory subscription (six copies for one year) is only $29.95.