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.

Christianity Today reflects on some of the significance of what is going on.

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.

Luter and Land

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.


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on June 4, 2012, in Richard Land, Southern Baptist Convention and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Identity Politics in the Church – when we are obsessed with leaders and movements rather than with the truth.

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