Category Archives: Southern Baptist Convention

Donald Trump and Sexual Assault: What Else Are Evangelical Voters Willing to Accept?

Last night’s presidential debate opened with the Republican candidate for president apologizing for boasting about sexual assault, while in the same breath claiming that it was just words, mere “locker room talk.” “I’m very embarrassed by it,” he admitted, “but it’s locker room talk.”

That’s all. Nothing to worry about. This is just how men talk when they are together having fun. People just say these things.

That’s what Trump would have us believe.

I have heard much “locker room talk” over the years and I have never, ever, heard someone even come close to bragging about sexual assault without being called out on it by any man with any self-respect whatsoever.

I am well aware that many men say these sorts of things. Many men commit sexual assault too. Indeed, one out of every five women in America has been the victim of rape or attempted rape, and half – half – of women have experienced sexual assault.

Image result for statistics sexual assault

And I wonder if you can find anyone who knows anything at all about Donald Trump who actually believes his claim that he has never sexually assaulted a woman. These are not random comments from a distant past.

Hillary Clinton put it quite well in last night’s debate:

Donald Trump is different. I said starting back in June that he was not fit to be president and commander-in-chief. And many Republicans and independents have said the same thing. What we all saw and heard on Friday was Donald talking about women, what he thinks about women, what he does to women. And he has said that the video doesn’t represent who he is.

But I think it’s clear to anyone who heard it that it represents exactly who he is. Because we’ve seen this throughout the campaign. We have seen him insult women. We’ve seen him rate women on their appearance, ranking them from one to ten. We’ve seen him embarrass women on TV and on Twitter. We saw him after the first debate spend nearly a week denigrating a former Miss Universe in the harshest, most personal terms.

So, yes, this is who Donald Trump is. But it’s not only women, and it’s not only this video that raises questions about his fitness to be our president, because he has also targeted immigrants, African- Americans, Latinos, people with disabilities, POWs, Muslims, and so many others.

So this is who Donald Trump is. And the question for us, the question our country must answer is that this is not who we are.

I get it. Politics is complicated. There are many people who loath just about everything about Donald Trump – who feel sick to their stomach by the sorts of things he has said and done – who will nevertheless vote for him because they fear Hillary Clinton even more. I suspect more Americans than not will hold their noses when they enter the voting booth this November. And many will vote for a third candidate, or not vote at all.

Image result for sexual assault

I am not a political scientist or a political activist. I am a moral theologian. And so I’m not going to tell anyone how to vote. But I will say this. Trump’s record of speech and action with respect to women is no sideshow to who he really is and who he will really be as the president of the United States. His track record is one of consistent misogyny. Voting for Trump is supporting a man who has publicly objectified women while boasting that he has long been able to assault them sexually – forcing himself on them, groping their genitals, and manipulating them for sex – with impunity.

Where does women’s dignity as human beings made in the image of God rank on your hierarchy of moral and political concerns? What about sexual assault?

Many of Donald Trump’s supporters claim that Christians should support him in order to protect religious liberty. But it was Hillary Clinton who was defending religious liberty in last night’s debate. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how associating the cause of religious liberty with the darkness that is Donald Trump will do anything but damage the cause.

The same could be said for the pro-life movement. Perhaps Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said it best:

The life issue can not flourish in a culture of misogyny and sexual degradation. The life issue can not flourish when you have people calling for the torture and murder of innocent non-combatants. The life issue can not flourish when you have people who have given up on the idea that character matters. If you lose an election you can live to fight another day and move on, but if you lose an election while giving up your very soul then you have really lost it all, and so I think the stakes are really high.

And I think the issue, particularly, when you have people who have said, and we have said, and I have said for twenty years the life issue matters, and the life issue is important… When you have someone who is standing up race baiting, racist speech, using immigrants and others in our communities in the most horrific ways and we say ‘that doesn’t matter’ and we are part of the global body of Christ simply for the sake of American politics, and we expect that we are going to be able to reach the nations for Christ? I don’t think so, and so I think we need to let our yes be yes and our no be no and our never be never.

Abortion is a horrific, deeply rooted moral problem. Terrorism and violence seem to claim more lives every day. But every two minutes in this country another woman – or a child – is sexually assaulted. These are our wives. These are our children. These are our neighbors. What else do we have to say? Who else are we going to throw under the bus while claiming that all of this somehow helps us save the lives of the unborn? And can we really say with a straight face that hitching our wagon to Donald Trump is good for the cause and credibility of religious liberty?

Even aside from the principle of it, common sense itself dictates this conclusion: If evangelicals publicly support Donald Trump, the chief result will not be the advance of the sanctity of life or of religious liberty, let alone of family values. The result will be the collapse of any evangelical credibility on moral issues whatsoever.

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Mississippi Praying: Southern White Evangelicals Defending Segregation

Carolyn Renee Dupont’s Mississippi Praying is a thoroughly stimulating analysis of the ways in which the theology and faith of Mississippi evangelicals shaped their opposition to the civil rights movement. A professor of history at Eastern Kentucky University, Dupont argues that, in contrast to the widespread assumption that southern religious opposition to the civil rights movement was the result of the church’s cultural captivity to a racist society, white evangelical theology was the decisive bulwark of segregation in the years 1945-1975. Because civil rights activists often relied on the social gospel for their critique of segregation, white evangelicals viewed the battle over segregation as a battle for theological orthodoxy. They stressed that social change would only follow the regeneration of individual souls, not the interference of apostate religious liberals from outside the state.

Not that most southern pastors and theologians espoused racial violence or explicitly defended white supremacy. The crass apologists who appealed to the curse of Ham or to Israel’s separation from the nations as evidence of a biblical mandate for racial segregation were always in the minority. But the vast majority of southern religious leaders interpreted the faith individualistically such that the Bible could at least allow for racial segregation. Given widespread assumptions about race as a natural phenomena, a product of God’s divine providence, it was enough to emphasize that the New Testament did not condemn segregation as unChristian.

Read the rest of this article here at Reformation 21.

Presbyterians and the Political Theology of Race (Part 1): Cultural Captivity

The primary problem with southern Presbyterian defenses of segregation was not that they assumed an individualistic view of sin but that they embraced a spiritualized, even neo-platonized, understanding of the Gospel. Like their Presbyterian forebear Thornwell, men like Gillespie, Richards and Smith insisted that the spiritual kingdom of God does not take concrete social expression. In other words, their political theology suffered from an under-realized eschatology even more than it did from some sort of American individualism. While this under-realized eschatology led them to conceive of the expression of the kingdom in this life in individualistic terms, it also led them to a greater reliance on the Old Testament as the best source of biblical insight regarding social and political life.

Lucas points out that the spirituality of the church doctrine did not lead southern churches to avoid speaking toward political matters; it simply made them selective in the issues that they addressed. I would make the point more specific by suggesting that the doctrine led them to prioritize the Old Testament over the New Testament as the source for political insight. The Old Testament rendered plausible the theological defense of a thoroughly communitarian and segregated vision of political life, while the rejection of the social and political relevance of the New Testament rendered its more radical and inclusive social ethics moot. Thus southern Presbyterians read Pentecost through Babel, and the unity of the nations in Christ through the division of the nations from Israel, rather than the other way around. Only by interpreting the Gospel through the law could they imagine that church membership, let alone justice within political society, could legitimately be constituted on the basis of race.

To read the rest of this article, please go to Reformation 21.

Should Christians Be Offended By Obama’s Speech at the National Prayer Breakfast?

At the National Prayer Breakfast yesterday President Obama spoke at length about the ways in which religion is so often hijacked in the name of violence and injustice. Most of the examples Obama cited were of actions committed by Muslims and in the name of Islam. But Obama paused, for just a few sentences, to remind his mostly Christian audience not to be too self-righteous.

And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.  In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ…. So this is not unique to one group or one religion.

Conservative critics pounced.

Jim Gilmore, former governor of Virginia, claimed that the president’s comments were the most offensive he’d heard from a president in his life. “He has offended every believing Christian in the United States.”

Conservative columnist Charlie Krauthammer declared himself “stunned” that the president could say something so “banal and offensive.”

Here we are from an act shocking barbarism, the burning alive of a prisoner of war, and Obama’s message is that we should remember the Crusades and the Inquisition. I mean, for him to say that all of us have sinned, all religions have transgressed — it was adolescent stuff. Everyone knows that. What’s important is what’s happening now. Christianity no longer goes on Crusades. It gave up the Inquisition a while ago. the Book of Joshua is knee deep in blood. That story is over too.

And none other than the usually clear-headed Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, claimed that Obama’s comments were “an unfortunate attempt at a wrongheaded moral comparison.”

“The evil actions that he mentioned were clearly outside the moral parameters of Christianity itself and were met with overwhelming moral opposition from Christians.”

Really? The crusades and the Inquisition were met with the “overwhelming” moral opposition of Christians? Slavery and Jim Crow were condemned by an “overwhelming” consensus among southern Christians? As an intelligent Southern Baptist, Moore knows better.

Krauthammer claims that Obama’s comments were “adolescent stuff,” but it is Krauthammer’s misrepresentation of Obama’s speech that is juvenile in its politicized self-righteousness. Krauthammer implies that Obama’s reflective comments about Christianity constituted the main message of his speech, when in reality the president was simply offering a passing word of humility about his own religion in the context of a larger point about the legitimate and illegitimate uses of religion. It was a speech overflowing with positive references toward Christianity and its teachings of love, even as it sought to identify areas of common moral ground among diverse religions.

Is it politically incorrect for conservatives humbly to acknowledge the sins of the Christian tradition in public?

Is it really true, as Gilmore claims, that “every believing Christian in the United States” is too proud to be reminded of great sins committed in the name of Christ?

If so, orthodox Christianity would be in far worse trouble than I ever imagined.

This sort of self-righteous indignation, thankfully, does not represent all Christians. Many of us do recognize the crusades, the religious persecution of heretics (vigorously defended by prominent Catholic and Protestant theologians in past centuries), and the racial oppression and violence committed toward African Americans (also justified by Christian pastors and theologians in the memory of many still alive today) to be serious distortions of Christianity that have had tragic consequences for the credibility of the gospel.

What is more, President Obama was right to remind us that many devout Muslims reject radical and violent interpretations of their faith, as those of us with Muslim friends and neighbors understand. Perhaps it should not be so offensive to Christians, in the midst of their justified anger at the injustice of Muslim terrorists, to remind themselves of their own religious sins and of the fact that they too stand only by grace.

Rather than cherry-pick the president’s comments to score political points, it would be better to highlight the words that are more representative of the overall tone of the speech:

Our job is not to ask that God respond to our notion of truth — our job is to be true to Him, His word, and His commandments.  And we should assume humbly that we’re confused and don’t always know what we’re doing and we’re staggering and stumbling towards Him, and have some humility in that process.  And that means we have to speak up against those who would misuse His name to justify oppression, or violence, or hatred with that fierce certainty.  No God condones terror.  No grievance justifies the taking of innocent lives, or the oppression of those who are weaker or fewer in number….

If we are properly humble, if we drop to our knees on occasion, we will acknowledge that we never fully know God’s purpose.  We can never fully fathom His amazing grace.  “We see through a glass, darkly” — grappling with the expanse of His awesome love.  But even with our limits, we can heed that which is required:  To do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.

I pray that we will.  And as we journey together on this “march of living hope,” I pray that, in His name, we will run and not be weary, and walk and not be faint, and we’ll heed those words and “put on love.”

President Barack Obama, National Prayer Breakfast, February 5, 2015

Evangelicals and Immigration Reform

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.

Russell Moore and a Christian Witness Beyond Culture Wars

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.

Russell Moore to Lead Southern Baptists’ Social Witness: A New Era?

Russell D. Moore has been elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), replacing the outgoing Richard Land. Of course, in so many ways Land, perhaps the leading voice of the Christian Right in recent decades, is irreplaceable. It’s hard to imagine Moore maintaining the same political clout as his forbear, who firmly believed that if American Christians would simply repent and pour themselves out in faith towards God, he would revive and bless the United States.

Moore is no less conservative than Land, but he is a much better theologian. Under Moore, the ERLC is likely to be humbler, more nuanced, and less ideological about the implications of Christianity for American politics. He understands that the fundamental social implications of the gospel are expressed primarily in the church and only secondarily (and indirectly) through the state. He realizes that the church must now take up its social witness as a minority voice in a secular culture rather than seek hegemonic power as some sort of ‘Moral Majority.’

I was first introduced to Russell Moore through his excellent book, The Kingdom of Christ: The New Evangelical Perspective. A must-read for anyone interested in covenant theology, kingdom theology, or Christian ethics, Moore carefully explains the growing convergence between the two great strands of Evangelical theology – Reformed covenant theology and dispensationalism – based on an emerging consensus about the nature of the kingdom of God. The convergence is not the result of ecumenical compromise, he demonstrates, but of hard exegetical work and clear theological progress. Untenable versions of dispensationalism and covenant theology – more shaped by dogmatic rationality than by the New Testament – are being replaced by models with deeper roots in Scripture, a process that is leading Evangelical theologians closer to one another, rather than further apart.

Moore’s own convictions about the nature of the kingdom of Christ are broadly in line with Reformed two kingdoms theology. In particular, Moore believes that the kingdom’s primary expression in this age is the church, not the political order, even as its implications for the Christian life extend to all of life.

The move toward a Kingdom ecclesiology maintains rightly that the definition of the ‘already’ reign of Christ is the church. This means that the righteousness and justice of the messianic order cannot be found, in the present age, in the arenas of the political, social, economic, or academic orders. Instead, the reign of Christ is focused in this age solely on His reign as Messiah over the people called into the Kingdom, namely, those who make up the church (Kingdom of Christ, 152).

To be sure, the kingdom is much greater than the church, and when Jesus returns it will encompass all things. But in the meantime, Christians need to avoid the temptation of the social gospel of identifying the kingdom with a broader movement of social transformation. Yet as Moore points out, even prominent Evangelicals like Carl F. H. Henry, who shaped an era of Evangelical social engagement, failed to resist such temptations. Comparing Henry, Harold J. Ockenga, and other Evangelical theologians with Walter Rauschenbusch, Moore writes,

While evangelicals would never have equated the church with the ‘industrial organization’ and so forth, they committed a very similar error by subsuming the emphasis on the church and its biblical prerogatives and distinctives to an amorphous ‘movement,’ which was clearly of first importance to them. Despite all their best efforts to oppose the Social Gospel liberals, at the point of ecclesiology Henry and the postwar evangelical movement fell into precisely the same error as Rauschenbusch – namely, the tendency to replace the church with ‘Kingdom priorities'” (Kingdom of Christ, 159).

The kingdom of God is manifest in the church rather than in the secular order, Moore insists, and the primary audience for the social imperative of the gospel found in Scripture is the church, not America. To be sure, this does not mean that the gospel is not fundamentally social, or that the church has nothing to say to the state. Rather,

As the church deals internally with matters of justice, it witnesses to the political powers-that-be of the kind of Kingdom righteousness the gospel demands, not only of individuals but also of communities… The development of a Kingdom theology therefore can inform evangelical public theology not only by reminding evangelicals that the call for sociopolitical righteousness is biblical, but also by reminding the church that such righteousness begins in the internal structures and relationships of the people of God (1 Pet. 4:17) (Kingdom of Christ, 169).

What does it mean for politics? Moore doesn’t put it in these terms, but it would seem that it means that Evangelicals should avoid the sort of politicization of the church that took place when the Southern Baptist Convention publicly aligned itself with Jerry Falwell.

When the primary outlet of evangelical engagement with social and political matters is a political action committee rather than the community of the church, the shaping authority on matters of social and political outlook all too often becomes polling data or party platforms, rather than an authoritative text. Political solutions are then grounded in the social contract of a ‘moral majority’ rather than by the righteousness of the coming Kingdom of God in Christ. In such a situation, when the ‘silent majority’ is culturally marginalized, so is the witness of evangelical Christianity” (Kingdom of Christ, 166).

These are welcome words, coming from the successor of Richard Land. Christians should follow Moore’s work on behalf of Southern Baptists at the ERLC with interest. His task is by no means an easy one, and it is doubtful that it will become much easier in coming years. Both Moore and the Southern Baptist Convention will need our prayers.

What is the Christian position on gun control?

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 – leader of the Christian Right – steps down

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.

Southern Baptists debate Calvinism: how do we decide what issues are important?

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.

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