Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Valerie Tarico on Southern Baptists' New Marketing Strategy: Pitting Churches Against Moral Arc of History

I've said before, and I keep thinking, that the top leaders of the Catholic church have made a cynical, calculated decision to write off the majority of Catholics in the developed sector of the world for crude market-driven reasons.  At the urging of the super-rich handlers to whom the pope, the Curia, and the bishops answer more than anyone else these days, the leaders of the Catholic church are seeking to rebrand Catholicism as true blue old-time religion that appeals to the current growth market of Christianity in the developing parts of the globe.

Because this seems very apparent to me, I find Valerie Tarico's take on what's happening in the Southern Baptist Convention among "Great Commission Baptists" right now compelling reading.  The story is a precise parallel to the story of the contemporary Catholic church.

As Tarico notes, the Southern Baptist Convention is in the process of re-branding itself for a new conservative market where the old-time brand of the SBC--overt racism--no longer sells well.  While the new brand of male domination of subordinate females, with its attendant theology of gender "complementarism," sells exceptionally well.  Especially in the parts of the world in which Christianity is experiencing a growth spurt now--and where a majority of converts are people of color not inclined to buy a racist product, but allured by a "complementarist" model of Christianity promoting the subjugation of women and the domination of women by men.  

As a sign of their re-branding, not only did the Southern Baptists decisively break with their overtly racist past by electing their first African-American president at their latest convention: they've also given their member churches the option of directly re-branding their product by calling themselves Great Commission Baptists and not Southern Baptists.  The latter label being a tad bit smudged, you understand, with racial tinges the church now wishes to live down . . . . 

As Tarico observes, what's tragic about all of this smoke and mirrors and image-managment sham is how it betrays the bright promise of the Southern Baptist churches, which gave signs in the post-World War II period of being on the road to theological reform that could have made the religion a force for some really creative developments in American culture.  She writes,

In an alternate universe, the Southern Baptist history of endorsing slavery and then Jim Crow laws, so shameful in hindsight, might have led to broad theological growth. For example, it might have softened the authoritarianism that caused ordinary believers to blindly follow whatever their preachers said. It might have called into question the notion of “biblical inerrancy,” which gives God’s seal of approval to every form of Iron Age bigotry in the biblical record. It might have led to an increase in denominational humility – the sense that maybe there are things to be learned from other kinds of Christians, the outside world, or the moral trajectory of human history. Alas. It would appear that the lesson learned was a narrow one: blacks are fully human and they can make loyal church members. A cynic might suggest that there was no lesson learned: economics were on the side of slaveholders at the start and are now on the side of putting blacks at the helm.   
Like the Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention almost made a leap that would have brought its teachings into line with compassion and the moral demands of the 21st century. In fact, by the 1970s it appeared that the Southern Baptists might be ready to move into a position at the vanguard of Christianity. Doors were slowly opening to women even at the flagship seminary in Louisville, and scholarship in fields like archeology, linguistics and the natural sciences was penetrating and changing theology discussions.

I find this analysis provocative because it draws a deliberate comparison between the marketing strategy of the Southern Baptist Convention and that of the Catholic church in the latter half of the 20th century.  In both cases, bright promise of theological and institutional reform gave way to a hard-line anti-reform movement that deliberately squelched that promise and sought to drive out of these churches church members who didn't accept the right-wing coup.

In both cases, two of the largest Christian denominations in the world are seeking to re-brand themselves as the purveyors of an old-time version of Christianity whose primary affirmations--whose entire gospel--is now packaged as assertions about gender that center on male entitlement to dominate and on women's entitlement to be servants to men.  What Great Commission Baptists now want to call "complementarism" is precisely what the Catholic church is trying to sell as the theology of the body.

Both of these new branding tools claim that the whole bible and its core message revolve around the divine intent to create two genders to complement each other, with certain implications built into the biological plan God imposed on nature through the creation of the two complementary genders.  Men are made to rule, to order, to plan, to project, to theorize and discuss, to carry on economic life, while women are made to be ruled, to be ordered, to receive plans and projects from their men, while they maintain the home and avoid theoretical discussions that have nothing to do with dinner plans and vacuum cleaners.

Because this is the political milieu in which the Southern Baptist Convention Great Commission Baptists recently chose to elect the convention's first African-American president, I simply don't get--as  I wrote several weeks back--the elation of many liberal Christian commentators, including some of my fellow Catholics, who are jubilant about the election of Rev. Fred Luter as the new SBC president.  As I wrote in response to the Southern-Baptists-making-progress meme of some liberal interpreters,

What some of my fellow Christians of mainline churches (including the Catholic church) are now applauding as unambiguously progressive appears to me in much more vexed, much more ambiguous--and anti-progressive--terms. 
I have to keep wondering, as I read the positive commentary of these folks about the Luter election--and as I note that they are heterosexual men who seem to have a blind spot a mile wide when it comes to questions of homophobia and misogyny--how it is that people who claim to be working for human rights can remain so blind about the games some groups play with the human rights of targeted minorities. 
Still.   Even as they "atone" and "repent" for the games they played in the past in the name of Christ with the human rights of other targeted minorities.

Read Tarico's summary of what the "great commission" re-branding process is all about, and see if it strikes you as a move in a progressive and morally savory direction.  As she notes, the great commission theology that the Southern Baptists are now touting along with "complementarism" centers on the following primary assertions:

1. Every member is a part of the sales force.  
2. What is sold is a package of exclusive truth claims.  
3.  The measure of a spiritual person is right belief. 
4. Other religions and denominations are competitors, not partners. 

If this is a roadmap to progressive values and to a Christianity that promotes progressive values in cultures around the world, I'll eat my zuchetto.  And if the "new evangelization" that slick marketing types like John Allen of National Catholic Reporter keep wanting to sell us--the Catholic version of "great commission" Christianity, which is exactly the same product--is any more promising and any more progressive, I'll add some consubstantial mustard to my condiment chalice as I down that zuchetto.

P.S. Don't miss John Shuster's great comment in response to my posting yesterday about Frank Cocozzelli's take on Bill Keller's recent invitation to dissident Catholics to make ourselves scarce.  John explains the economic factors promoting the attempt of top Catholic officials to re-brand Catholicism as old-time religion for the developing nations.  As he says, the Vatican and dioceses are increasingly financially strapped and need the cash flow from the burgeoning churches of the southern half of the globe.  And, sad to say, in that part of the globe, there has also been little of the supervision that is now becoming the norm in the developed nations, when it comes to questions of clerical abuse of children (or, for that matter, of priests abusing nuns and women).  As John suggests, this is another reason for the gravitation towards these parts of the world on the part of top Catholic officials right now.

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