Category Archives: Southern Baptist Convention
Immigration reform is an excellent example of a political controversy on which faithful Christians legitimately disagree. Both the New York Times and the Washington Post have recently run stories drawing attention to increasing Evangelical support for immigration reform. Some of the most significant Evangelical organizations associated in the past with the strident conservatism of the Christian Right – including the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), Focus on the Family, and the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) – have thrown their weight behind the cause.
At the same time, among the broader Evangelical population there is still significant hostility towards immigration reform; according to the Washington Post, it remains the demographic most opposed to what many conservatives regard simply as amnesty. Conservatives expect people to work hard, act responsibly, and obey the law. They worry a lot about the growing demographic of Americans who don’t seem to share their understanding of what it means to be an American, and the idea that someone would enter this country illegally and then expect the same public benefits as anyone else flies in the face of that fear. It’s not that they are opposed to immigration, as they will tell you. They just think it should be done legally. You can’t give amnesty to someone who has broken the law or you will simply encourage her or him to do it again.
That said, in his defense of immigration reform Tea Party Senator Marco Rubio rightly reminds such critics that when we talk about enforcing the law and about deportation we are talking not primarily about criminals but about people. In many cases we are talking about children and young people who have been born and grown up in this country but whose parents immigrated illegally. We are talking about married couples, perhaps a woman who has entered the country illegally but whose husband is an American. Though in many cases the human cost of deportation is not very significant, in other cases we are contemplating breaking up families, arresting people, and forcibly deporting them, whatever the moral and personal cost may be.
Again, I understand that this is an issue on which Christians legitimately disagree. I would not want my church taking a defined position on immigration legislation, which is why I take issue with what the NAE and ERLC (though not so much Focus on the Family) are doing. How do you balance the integrity of the law against empathy, retributive justice against restorative justice, the common good against the well-being of individuals, a person’s identity in terms of citizenship against her calling as a wife and mother? The church should lay out biblical principles that policymakers must keep in mind (i.e., don’t split up families), but it hardly has divine authority to promote particular legislation.
I personally believe immigration reform is an urgent necessity of our time. I expect many of you to disagree, and that’s fine; I may well be wrong. That said, I do want to comment on the irony of American conservatives – that segment of the population most likely to take the history of nations, cultures, and institutions seriously – calling for such a hardline against illegal Mexican immigrants.
How many of our ancestors (political ancestors if not literal ones) broke the law when they came to this country, or when they pushed irrepressibly westward? I’m not just talking about the occupation of lands inhabited by natives who had little understanding of property ownership. I’m talking about the refusal of Americans over and over to obey the treaties their own country signed with various tribes, the insistence that even if these non-white people had been pushed off their lands multiple times already, they should be pushed off yet again. And what of the mass American migration into Mexican territory that resulted in the Texan secession from Mexico and ultimately in the huge land-grab resulting from the most unjust war in American history (Mexican War, 1846-1848)? (By my count the territories we seized from Mexico add up to about 130 votes in the electoral college.)
My point is not to question the wisdom, virtue, and hard work on which American prosperity is built. Conservatives rightly point out that we can’t turn back the clock and make these wrongs right. As with the case of reparations to former slaves, it is far better to move on and move forward than to continually haggle over the sins of the past. Clemency is just as important a political virtue as is justice.
But then why do so many view illegal immigration so differently? To be sure, there are approximately 15 million people who are currently living in this country illegally. They have broken the law. And yet they now play a vital role in the American economy, performing hard work that many other Americans are not willing to do, contributing far more to this country than they take from it. They believe in the American dream, the same American dream that motivated our own ancestors.
Finding a way for these people to work through a process – a process that involves penalties and a significant amount of waiting time – that would enable them to hold their families together, work towards prosperity, and become legal residents hardly seems like an outlandish proposal, let alone one that would destroy the integrity of the law. To be sure, it would have to be accompanied by stricter border enforcement. But it is unlikely that, even were the present immigration reform to amount in an “amnesty” like that of the 1980s, we would find ourselves in the same mess in 20 years that we are in today. An improving economy and rapidly falling birth rates south of the border mean that there are far fewer Mexicans interested in entering the United States than was once the case.
In any case, it’s good to see Evangelicals increasingly seeing both sides of this difficult issue. Enforcing the law at all costs, as Les Miserables has recently reminded us, is not the same thing as justice. We’ll see what happens.
From Collin Garbarino at First Thoughts:
Last week, Russell Moore, president-elect of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, gave C-Span an interview … [T]he host asks Moore if he thinks that he’s on the losing side of the culture war. His answer sums up his approach:
I don’t like to think in terms of culture wars. I don’t think we are at war with one another in this country. I think we have very deep disagreements on issues that matter, but we come to that with civility and in conversation.
Moore recognizes that social conservatives who let the Bible shape their worldview are a decided minority in America. He claims that this minority needs to realize their position and speak prophetically. During the course of the interview, Moore fields questions from callers on both sides of the political divide. Callers from the left are angry with him because of his opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage. Callers from the right can’t understand his position on immigration and can’t understand why he doesn’t want to use the rhetoric of “culture war.” I suppose that these callers have a right to be confused because they probably haven’t heard someone talk like this before. Moore offers an intelligent, cool-headed position, and most Americans have never experienced intelligence and cool-headedness in the context of discussing religion’s role in politics.
Amid all the hand-wringing and the endearing “woe is us – persecution is coming” rhetoric coming from conservative Christians these days, Moore’s approach is principled and refreshing. Read Garbarino’s post, or watch the interview, here.
I receive regular emails from a number of Christian organizations and denominations advocating that I take particular political actions or support specific policies. Last week I was inundated with messages regarding gun control, nearly all of which sought to persuade me that my Christian faith requires me to support a particular policy or political stance.
From Sojourners, Evangelical Jim Wallis argued that people seek guns in reaction to their separation from one another. He noted that while we all want to tell our children they are safe, we cannot, until … Until we improve our gun control laws. Then, apparently, we could decisively tell our children they are safe. For Wallis, America would do the right thing here if only we would allow our faith to overcome our politics:
… if people of faith respond differently just because they are people of faith — that our faith overcomes our politics here, and that gun owners and gun advocates who are people of faith will act in this situation as people of faith, distinctively and differently.
Wallis offers thoughtful theological reasons for his position, and then tells us that he agrees with the judgment of his nine year old son:
“I think that they ought to let people who, like licensed hunters, have guns if they use them to hunt. And people who need guns — who need guns for their job like policemen and army. But I don’t think that we should just let anybody have any kind of gun and any kind of bullets that they want. That’s pretty crazy.”
Not a word on the constitution in this appeal, nor the faintest recognition that inscribed in the American Bill of Rights is the right to bear arms for the purpose – not of hunting, or of serving in government – but of securing the rights of a free people. Faith must not simply overcome our politics, apparently. It must also overcome our constitutional obligations to one another.
The United Methodist Church’s General Board of Church and Society likewise calls me to yield to the “moral imperative” of stronger gun control laws, noting that 47 religious leaders have signed a document declaring their support for legislation that would 1) require a criminal background check on anyone purchasing a gun, 2) prohibit civilians from purchasing “high-capacity weapons and ammunition magazines”, and 3) make gun trafficking a federal crime. This statement, thankfully, addressed the question of the constitution, though only to state that the signers believe that the steps for which they are calling are compatible with the right to bear arms. Fair enough, though more on this would be helpful. But aside from appealing to safety and common sense, the Methodist Church gives me no biblical or theological reason why I should support this policy, nor does the letter signed by the 47 religious leaders do so.
That might be fine if I wasn’t receiving mail from advocacy arm of an even larger Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, suggesting a slightly different response. The ERLC sends me Richard Land’s letter to President Obama, calling for caution. Land declares first that “we [i.e., Southern Baptists] affirm and uphold the Second Amendment’s ‘right of the people to keep and bear Arms.’” In contrast to Wallis, Land declares that “no set of policies or gun restrictions can inoculate us from future Newtown-like killing sprees.”
Yet Land says that Southern Baptists “believe our nation can and should take some preemptive actions to quell gun violence in ways that do not infringe on the Second Amendment.” Among these actions Land identifies numbers 1 and 3 from the letter signed by the 47 leaders, but he notably leaves out the proposed prohibition of high-capacity weapons and ammunition magazines. Land also calls President Obama to respect local authorities and states rights, asks him to consider taking action to constrain graphic violence in video games and other entertainment and urges consideration of stricter measures to contain potential violence on the part of the mentally unhealthy. Yet like the statement of the 47 leaders, Land gives little theological reason for his positions.
So what is the “Christian” position here? Wallis offers the deepest theological analysis of the appropriate Christian response to the problem of gun violence, but he is most dismissive of constitutional concerns. Land is most sensitive to constitutional constraints, but it’s hard to see how his position is distinctively Christian. There does seem to be a consensus among all three groups that there need to be criminal background checks on gun-purchasers and that gun trafficking needs to be a crime.
But what if our “faith” demands more than the constitution allows, as Wallis’s rhetoric might suggest? On the other hand, what if our faith requires us to submit to a constitution that prevents us from legislating policies we might otherwise have good reason to support? At the same time, what if the positions of the United Methodist and Southern Baptist churches owe more to their political convictions (and respective constitutional interpretations) than to any sort of substantive Christian teaching. What if there is no “Christian” position on gun control?
Unfortunately, the inevitable result of all of this ecclesiastical advocacy is a loss of credibility on the part of the churches. We all know that Wallis and the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Church and Society lean left, and that Richard Land and the Southern Baptist Convention lean right. We know their respective attitudes toward gun control. And so we take their statements on these matters worth a grain of salt. Nothing has changed except that we all ignore the churches just a little bit more.
In a sense Wallis does hold more credibility because he does not speak for a church. And we do want Christians to reflect on the potential insights of their theology for difficult political problems. Removing religion from political arguments may seem ideal, but in reality it simply obscures the reasons why people support the positions they do, impoverishing public debate. But Wallis’s enormous confidence in the degree to which his own political judgments are the demands of the faith is unwarranted. Unless you already agree with him, he’s probably not going to convince you.
It’s time for American churches (and theologians) to reconsider their claims to authority on matters of politics and policy. The church is charged with the proclamation of the gospel and the whole counsel of God to a suffering and sinful world. The more we waste our “ecclesiastical capital” advocating policies that have little obvious relation with that mission, the more we undermine our own cause.
Richard Land is resigning as head of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC)’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC). The official announcement is here. Land has been the president of the ERLC for 25 years and is one of the most important – perhaps the most important – leaders of the Christian Right. He is particularly important for those concerned about the role of the church in politics because unlike most leaders of the Christian Right, he actually represents and speaks for a denomination. Under Land the ERLC advocated all sorts of policy proposals and particular pieces of legislation in Washington D.C. and elsewhere, pertaining to issues ranging from abortion and immigration to global warming and sex trafficking.
I have written about Land a few times in the past (here and here), and I have commented on the scandal that lies behind his current resignation. I won’t repeat all of that now, but I do want to make a few comments about Land’s approach to the church’s involvement in politics. As the announcement reports,
Land made it clear in his letter he is retiring only from the ERLC, “not from the ministry, or from what is popularly called the ‘culture war.’”
“When God called me into the ministry a half century ago, the burden He placed on my heart was for America,” wrote Land, who recently began his 50th year in the gospel ministry. “That call and that burning burden are still there. I believe the ‘culture war’ is a titanic struggle for our nation’s soul and as a minister of Christ’s Gospel, I have no right to retire from that struggle.”
As Land makes quite clear here, he believes the task of a minister of the church is to fight for the soul of the country, not simply to proclaim a gospel that saves individuals or the church. Readers might be puzzled by what he means by the nation’s “soul”, but in his many books Land explains that he thinks that if enough people in a country serve the Lord faithfully that country will reach a tipping point of divine blessing. At that point, in fulfillment to Old Testament prophecies like 2 Chronicles 7:14, God will exalt the entire country, morally, economically, and politically.
Part of what that means for Land is that Christians need to vote their values, serving the Lord by working hard to make sure that national policy is Christian. To be sure, Land consistently defends the separation of church and state; he is no theocrat or theonomist. But he is most certainly a transformationalist of the most energetic sort. As those paying attention to the recent primary cycle will recall, he does not hesitate to communicate his support for the Republican Party, or even for one primary candidate over another.
There are some who argue that Land has never really spoken for the majority of Southern Baptists, and that the SBC is not as solidly in line with the Christian Right as Land’s reputation would make it seem. There are others who believe the Christian Right is in decline, and I’m sure they’ll point to Land’s resignation as another example of this trend. I’m not sure about either of them. Pundits and intellectuals constantly claim the Christian Right is in decline and that it fails to represent the concerns of most Christians. Yet the Right keeps coming back, significantly influencing election after election. It also remains to be seen what Land’s new role in the Christian Right will be.
For conservative Christians Land should certainly be respected for his role in bringing the Southern Baptist Convention from the brink of Mainline liberalism and for his effectiveness of ensuring that the SBC would be a pro-life denomination.
Land’s hiring in 1988 came amid the ongoing effort by Southern Baptist supporters of biblical inerrancy to restore the convention to its theological roots. Conservative trustees of what was then known as the Christian Life Commission (CLC) had a majority after nearly a decade of appointments to the entity’s board.
The CLC had never had a truly pro-life head since abortion had become a culture-cleaving issue in the 1960s, culminating in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton decisions legalizing the procedure for effectively any reason throughout pregnancy. Foy Valentine, a courageous voice on race relations, was firmly entrenched in the pro-choice camp and fought pro-life efforts within the convention. Larry Baker, Valentine’s successor after more than a quarter of a century of service, did not promote a pro-choice agenda when he took office in 1987, but he also was not a committed pro-lifer. Baker’s tenure lasted only 19 months before he left for a pastorate.
Land took office and began turning the entity in a pro-life-–and more conservative–-direction while stabilizing an agency that was in serious financial straits.
Now Land is stepping down. What this will do in terms of the public voice and image of Southern Baptists remains to be seen.
The Southern Baptists have been debating Calvinism and Arminianism again, and the matter was addressed at the recent historic meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). As the Baptist Press reports,
The issue of Calvinism also was addressed from the platform several times, with each speaker urging messengers to remain united for the Great Commission. Executive Committee President Frank Page — who said he’s not a Calvinist — addressed each side of the debate. He told the non-Calvinists: “There seems to be some non-Calvinists who are more concerned about rooting out Calvinists than they are about winning the lost for Christ.” He then addressed Calvinists, some of whom he said “seem to think that if we do not believe the same thing about soteriology that they believe then somehow we are less intelligent or ignorant.” Soteriology is the study of the doctrine of salvation.
The article quotes the outgoing SBC president Bryant Wright:
“Our calling is to be centered on Christ and grounded in the Word, while agreeing to disagree on the finer points of theological issues,” Wright said. “May we all agree that Christ … has given us a very clear message and mission for the church.”
Wright added, “If we pride ourselves more on being a traditional Southern Baptist or more on being a Calvinist or a Reformed theologian, more than we are thankful that we are Christ-centered and biblically based … then it is time to repent of theological idolatry.”
For Reformed and Presbyterian Christians this attitude to Calvinist soteriology is quite interesting. Many Calvinists tend to view the “Five Points of Calvinism” (really the five points of the 17th Century Synod of Dort) as the heart of the gospel rather than as the “finer points of theological issues.” We are often more willing to allow divergence of opinion on the sacraments than on predestination. We are more likely to work closely with Reformed Baptists than with Methodists.
But the Southern Baptists see things differently. In his Imagine! A God-Blessed America Richard Land, the head of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, distinguishes between primary, secondary, and tertiary issues that divide Christians. Among primary issues, on which there can be no compromise, he lists doctrines like the resurrection of Jesus. Among secondary issues, on which Christians divide denominationally while affirming one another as true Christians, he mentions doctrines like baptism. Among tertiary issues, on which Christians may disagree but should not divide, he lists controversies like Calvinism versus Arminianism. For Baptists, in other words, the sacraments are more important than the debate over predestination.
At first glance John Calvin actually seems to agree with Land. In the Institutes Calvin argues that one may only leave a church if that church shows itself to be a false church, and a church can only be said to be false if it fails to preach the gospel or to properly administer the sacraments. Calvin even clarifies that a church may have many doctrinal problems but that as long as the gospel is preached, believers should not separate from it. From this angle, at least, it seems like Calvin may have been willing to be a Methodist, but that he could not have been a Baptist.
Of course, Reformed believers might quickly respond that the Five Points are essential to the right preaching of the gospel, and that although Baptists do not baptize infants, they still administer the sacrament correctly in virtually all other respects. And I have no disagreement with this claim. My point is not to say that we should not be committed to the Five Points, or that Baptist churches are not true churches. Let me be clear for the record, I would never make that argument, and in fact, I have argued in print against others who do. Many of the best preachers of the gospel are Baptists and one of the most faithful and enriching congregations I have ever worshiped in regularly was Baptist. I am not trying to be critical of the Baptists; on the contrary, I am trying to learn from them.
It is helpful sometimes to reflect on how we determine what doctrinal issues are important. Is predestination really more important than infant baptism? Why do the Baptists (and many other denominations) see it differently? If anything, I suspect we tend to exaggerate the importance of theological formulations concerning salvation and to underestimate the importance of the appointed means of grace in the church. After all, Jesus never outlined the Five Points as such (though I agree, he and his apostles did teach them, as should we). He did give us the sacrament of baptism.
Identity Politics in the Church – when we are obsessed with leaders and movements rather than with the truth
The Southern Baptist Convention is changing. For the first time in the denomination’s 167 year history, a black man, Fred Luter, will probably be elected as its president. Meanwhile, Richard Land, arguably Southern Baptists’ most prominent public voice and a staunch social conservative, has received a stern rebuke from the board of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and is being forced to shut down his radio show Richard Land Live! Land has apologized for the comments he made regarding the Trayvon Martin shooting as well as for the plagiarism of which he was guilty.
While insiders characterize Luter’s anticipated election as a watershed moment for a denomination started by slave owners, some observers outside the SBC voice skepticism about the true potential impact on race relations.
“The real issue is whether denominational leaders, of whom Land is perhaps the most public right now … have any intent on sharing real denominational leadership with Luter or other non-whites outside the traditional networks of denominational power,” said Bill Leonard, professor of Baptist studies and church history at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.
The problem is, as even the above photo suggests, it is all too easy for critics to characterize the drama surrounding Luter and Land in terms of basic features of political and racial identity.
[David] Goatley predicted that Land’s statements would continue to carry more weight than those of Luter.
“No president with one or two years … can hope to have substantial influence in comparison to an agency leader who has served for decades … and nurtured a public persona that identifies him as a—or the—principal spokesperson for the organization,” said Goatley, a national board member for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
In reality, Land has been a major leader in the Southern Baptist Convention’s progress in racial reconciliation, and it is very evident from his body of work that he takes the interracial identity of the SBC very seriously. He has apologized for his comments after the Trayvon Martin shooting, and he has the support of Luter.
“Our convention has made a lot of progress in the area of racial reconciliation, and we want to continue this effort,” Luter said. “Dr. Land’s letter of apology will hopefully keep us on track. I accept his apology and will look forward to working with him and others within this convention to tear down the walls of racism in our great country.”
These sorts of stories are the direct result of our cultural fascination with great personalities and dramatic confrontations. It does not matter that Luter and Land may agree on virtually every major issue currently faced by the SBC. It does not matter that the denomination has made dramatic progress on race relations, or that Land has been a part of that. People have their associations, sound-bites have their effect, and complex reality is so much more boring than the drama of racial and political conflict. Yet it is highly doubtful that any of this really matters much for the practical life and witness of Southern Baptist Christians.
Unfortunately, many conflicts among Christians are a lot like this. Believers don’t simply have their commitments on points of faith or matters of virtue; they love and are devoted to particular leaders, institutions, or movements. And so often the disputes that we pretend are really about substantive theology are actually just proxies for arguments about identity and politics. And the blogosphere is increasingly a big part of this. Because of its very nature as immediate digital communication, because anyone can start a blog, sound smart, and cause trouble no matter who he or she is, and because its constituency includes many who are tempted to limit their reading to what is exciting and short, the blogosphere breeds off of conflict and sensationalism.
Not all of this is bad. We need to talk about prominent people, movements, and institutions, and politics matters. But none of this should be our focus, and we need to be aware of how much it distracts us from what is really important. Our identity and purpose is tied up with Jesus Christ and the faith once handed down to the saints. Our goal is to believe and witness to the truth in a spirit of love and Christ-like virtue. All Christians, whether black or white, conservative or liberal, two kingdoms or Neo-Calvinist, Reformed or Evangelical, have this common ground.
Don’t forget, the world loves its drama too, and the media enjoys portraying the inconsistencies and conflicts among Christians. It is certainly in our best interests, and the best interests of the gospel, to focus on our common faith and our common Lord, not in order to downplay important differences, but to work together and gradually erase those differences in a spirit of mutual solidarity. The world – and our Lord – is watching.