Monday, July 4, 2011

Proud to Be a Flag-Waving American: Southern Baptist Churches as Republican Voting Machine

An on-the-ground report on religion and politics from Texas: yesterday, my cousin returns from church (he is a faithful Southern Baptist) to his father's care facility, toting a bag of little American flags.  He has brought them to decorate the tables in the dining room in which the residents eat.  And he says the flags came from his church, where they were handed out yesterday for the congregation to wave as they sang a song about being proud flag-waving Americans.

I mentioned in a posting a day or so ago that my uncle left the Southern Baptists several years ago to join a church affiliated with the breakaway group, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, precisely because he was offended at the growing tendency to align church and (Republican) state in the Southern Baptist Convention.  Though his father was president of the SBC in Arkansas for some years, and he has very strong family ties for generations in that religious body, he sees the now overt politicization of the Southern Baptists as a betrayal of traditional Baptist principles of separation and church and state.

His son doesn't agree.  In my family, the younger generation of Southern Baptists have willingly taken the right turn of the SBC, in a way parallel to how many Catholics who came of age in the same era--the era of Reagan and Thatcher, of John Paul II and the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist convention--have behaved.  The older generation of Baptists in my family have looked askance at the now out-in-the-open alignment of Southern Baptists with the Republican party, and at the hard fundamentalism adopted by their childhood church, as it imposes more and more doctrinal (and political) litmus tests for membership.

Above all, they are appalled at the now almost universal litmus tests of opposition to the gays and to abortion as make-or-break positions for "real" Southern Baptists to adopt.  This way of doing church, this way of thinking about church and conscience and politics, runs counter to everything they have ever been taught about the longstanding Baptist traditions of freedom of conscience and separation of church and state.

So my cousin's church hands out little flags and encourages the congregation--a large, influential, and well-heeled church--to wave them while singing about their happiness at being proud flag-waving Americans.  A few days back, I had a peppery online blog conversation with a Southern Baptist man in Arkansas about these matters.  He wants to deny that there has been a fundamentalist turn in the SBC which has resulted in the creation of a stalwart voting bloc for the Republic party.

When I pointed out to him that a study commissioned by the SBC itself ahead of the 2008 elections showed that 80% of SBC pastors intended to vote for McCain, while only 1% intended to vote for Obama, he replied in a huff that 80% is not a monolithic voting bloc.  When I then pointed out that if you look at it this way--only 1% of SBC pastors intended to vote Democratic in the last election, while 99% intended to vote either Republican or something else (and the something else has to be for a tea party candidate)--you have a voting bloc of 99% of the pastors of a particular Christian denomination stating that they cannot and will not vote Democratic.

It's hard to think of any religious voting bloc in the nation quite that resolute and uniform, outside of the LDS church.  Quite so resolute and uniform in its judgment that one cannot be a faithful follower of Christ now and not be arch-conservative.  That one cannot be a faithful follower of Christ and not be Republican.

And, though the leaders of the SBC want to deny that the out and proud Republican politicking of many SBC pastors constitutes politicking within their own churches--that it constitutes the encouragement of members of SBC churches to vote Republican--as an NPR report suggested in 2004, the Southern Baptist Convention is now to a considerable degree a Republican voting machine. Those raised Southern Baptist who disagree with this development and who continue voting their own consciences--like my uncle or my mother's sister, who has also opted for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship--have left the SBC.

If Robert Putman and David Campbell are correct with their compelling analysis of why younger Americans are leaving churches these days--namely, they're fed up with this kind of politicking, and above all with the use of the churches to beat up on the gays--then the overt politicization of the Southern Baptist Convention has to be one of the primary reasons that Southern Baptist churches continue to bleed members.

Which means that the Catholic bishops of the U.S. are perhaps making a colossal mistake in continuing to align their church more and more closely with the religious right, at a point in time in which increasing numbers of younger Catholics are tacitly leaving the Catholic church behind.  Often, precisely because of that alignment.

Happy fourth, y'all.

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