Monday, June 25, 2012

Southern Baptists Elect an African-American President: The Curious Blind Spots of Liberal Christian Commentary


I've read a number of statements lately by liberal commentators within mainline Christian groups about the Southern Baptist Convention's recent election of its first African-American president--statements I find frankly disheartening.  These include at least one statement by a liberal Catholic blogger at a high-profile Catholic blog site.

In a posting last Thursday, I noted briefly the election of Rev. Fred Luter to the position of SBC president.  In my view, those liberals within mainline churches now applauding the election of Rev. Luter are either badly informed about the political message that the SBC is sending with this election of its first African-American president, or are seriously tone-deaf to questions of gay rights (and to interlocking questions about the biblically based "right" of men to dominate women and the obligation of women to submit to male control).  The election of Rev. Luter is a much more ambiguous event than many of these liberal commentators appear to recognize, and the signal it's sending is much less liberal than these commentators believe.

I fully recognize that, in writing about the SBC from a Catholic perspective, I'm treading on ground that is sacred to other folks, which is not my own ground.  And I may well give offense, though it's not my intent to do so.

I write, after all, as someone who was raised in a Southern Baptist family and church, and who left that church primarily because it refused to move forward quickly and unambiguously in support of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.  I write, too, as someone whose uncle was for many years an academic vice-president in Southern Baptist colleges, and whose aunt (the wife of this uncle) was also a professor in those colleges, as well as the daughter of a Southern Baptist minister.  Both of the sons of my uncle and aunt have become Southern Baptist ministers, and have long since allied themselves with the fundamentalist machine in the SBC, which has been dominant in the Convention for several decades now.

I write as well as the nephew of another uncle (same side of my family) whose father was for some years the president of the Southern Baptist Convention of Arkansas, and whose family tree is chock full of Baptist ministers.  Whose family came to Arkansas along with the native people they refused to repudiate when the federal government and states back east sent those people to Indian Territory, demanding that missionaries working among the native folks not interfere with the expulsion process.  After arriving in Arkansas when they refused to leave the people among whom they had been doing missionary work, my uncle's family helped to organize the first Baptist college in this state.

And it is highly significant that, with this heritage, that same uncle chose a number of years ago to leave the Southern Baptist Convention for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, after the fundamentalist wing took over the SBC and turned it into a right-wing Republican voting machine.  In my uncle's view, the SBC has lost sight of the traditional Baptist principles that were drummed into him as a child--notably, the principle that no central governing body has the right to dictate to each individual Baptist church, which is, in traditional Baptist theology, autonomous.  My uncle also rejects the strident anti-gay moralism of the Southern Baptist church in which his family has played such a large role, and participated, while his health permitted, in a supportive, non-judgmental hospitality ministry of his CBF church to those with AIDS and to their family members.

So I write as someone with strong historic family ties to Southern Baptists, who grew up in and who lives in a region of the country dominated by Southern Baptists.  Anyone living in the American Southeast, particularly in those regions dominated by Southern Baptists (and this includes Arkansas), has no choice except to familiarize herself or himself with Southern Baptist beliefs, Southern Baptist mores, Southern Baptist political strategies, etc.  The influence of this religious body on the culture of the American South--including its political life--is significant and unavoidable.  And, unfortunately, some of those liberal mainline Christians who are now writing to praise its recent "liberal" step to elect its first black president have little on-the-ground knowledge of that culture, or of Southern Baptist history.

The reason that some liberals in other mainline Christian churches are inclined to see the election of an African-American president as a liberal move on the part of the SBC is, of course, that the church was born out of resistance to the antebellum emancipation movement.  It broke with other American Baptist churches over the issue of slavery as the Civil War approached, and repudiated its defense of slavery and of white supremacy only in 1995.  

As I've noted several times on this blog, I chose to leave my family's Southern Baptist church in south Arkansas after a resolution to accept black members in 1965 split the church.  Though a narrow majority of the members of the church voted to open our doors to people of color, the debate about this was rancorous and divisive, and, to be honest, deeply disturbing for a young adolescent who was watching longstanding racial barriers fall all around him except in the white churches, and who saw the move to racial justice in entirely positive terms.

When I told my parents that I could in conscience no longer go to a church almost half of whose members didn't feel obliged to welcome others simply because of their pigmentation and that I was inclined to join the Catholic church, which had long been integrated in my community, they sent me to our pastor to discuss my qualms of conscience.  He told me that churches can't ever lead the way in movements of social change, because those movements create distasteful rifts in society and within churches.  The church's role is to follow behind and bless movements like the civil rights movement after the "right" side has gotten sorted out by secular forces like courts and legislatures.

I didn't agree.  I left my family's church as a result.  

And so, of course, given the rather murky history of the SBC on matters of racial justice, I can certainly see why some liberals who are uninformed about precisely why the SBC is now moving towards racial inclusion would see the move to elect an African-American president in totally positive terms--as a step of a powerful Christian body in the U.S. towards progressive values it has hitherto refused to adopt.

But there's another very important piece of this picture of a retrogressive religious body moving in a "progressive" direction that's not very hard to see--if one only opens one's eyes.  Solid information about this other piece of the picture is easily available online, and it seems strange to me that those who unambiguously welcome the election of Rev. Fred Luter seem not to have troubled themselves to seek out this readily available information.

Immediately after Luter's election, after all, Jim Burroway noted at Box Turtle Bulletin:

The Southern Baptist Convention elected its first African-American president this week, marking an especially historic milestone for a religious denomination which owes its very existence to the nineteenth century split from its northern brethren over the Southern Baptists support for slavery. But when Rev. Fred Luter from New Orleans spoke following his election, his remarks remind us that Southern Baptists have merely exchanged one form of prejudice for another . . . .

And then he excerpted a sermon that Rev. Luter preached following his election in which he lumps gay and lesbian human beings together with racists and child molesters.  That sermon was reported on by Adelle Banks at Religion News Service right after Luter's election and is not hard for those interested in the election of Rev. Luter to find, even if they might regard Box Turtle Bulletin as a gay site that doesn't particularly interest them as a news source.

I myself wrote about these matters not too long after Jim Burroway did, citing him as my source.  See the first link in this posting.  In my posting, I also linked to a very fine statement by Candace Chellew-Hodge at Religion Dispatches which, again, is not hard to hunt up--and which one would imagine anyone writing about the Luter election who aims at a comprehensive overview of this event would feel obliged to hunt up.

As Chellew-Hodge points out, the SBC followed its election of Rev. Fred Luter by passing a resolution which explicitly states that African Americans and LGBT people belong to different categories of human beings that have different "distinguishing features."  While black folks have a legitimate reason for asking for civil rights, gay folks don't.  As Jim Burroway rightly notes, in electing Fred Luter, the SBC has merely exchanged one form of prejudice for another.

And this is to say that the election of the Convention's first black president is inherently linked to its defense of the "right" of men to dominate women and the "obligation" of women to submit to men, as well as to its refusal to accord civil rights to gay and lesbian persons.  The movement of the SBC in the past several years to a position of repentance for its previous racism and defense of white supremacy goes hand in hand with the SBC's current strong and highly politicized opposition to women's equality with men and to gay and lesbian rights and full inclusion of gay and lesbian human beings in the structures of American society.  

This is a movement designed to court conservative black evangelicals who share many of the views and values of conservative white evangelicals on these issues of gender and sexual orientation, at a moment in American history when the "witness" of the religious right about these issues is threatened as more and more American citizens move in the direction of justice and inclusion in the area of women's rights and gay rights.  At a moment of American history in which the current battle for rights and justice is for gender equity and gay rights--when there is a contemporary price to be paid for prophetic witness and for being on the side of justice--many conservative white Christian groups whose pasts are strongly tinged with overt racism now want to claim that they have seen the light about their past resistance to the rights of people of color, in order to make common cause with conservative African Americans in resisting gay rights and keeping women in their places.

In other words--and this is significant and should be noted by Catholic commentators who claim to stand for human rights and progressive values--the political strategy the SBC has crafted in recent years is precisely the same political strategy as the National Organization of Marriage has been using, per internal memos leaked to the media this past spring.  Those memos state that NOM has actively strategized and worked to drive a wedge between the gay community and the black community, by convincing conservative African American people of faith that gay citizens are demanding "special" rights, illicit rights that are discontinuous from the human rights of people of color.

It really doesn't take a lot of digging to discover the decisive overlap of the politics of Southern Baptist leaders right now with the politics of racially divisive, homophobic groups like NOM who exploit social divisions in order to attack gay and lesbian human beings.  When the Southern Baptist media reported in the 2008 elections that 80% of SBC pastors were indicating they intended to vote for McCain and only 1% for Obama, it's not really a secret that the SBC now constitutes one of the strongest and most consistent Republican voting blocs in the nation.

Or take a map which shows counties in which Southern Baptists are demographically dominant, and see what percentage of those counties voted for the Democratic president in the 2008 elections (hint: none).  Or take a map showing the percentage of Baptists by county throughout the U.S. and overlay that map with one showing the breakdown of counties that voted Republican in the 2008 presidential elections, and note the significant overlap of the two maps.

It would be beyond naive to ignore the extent to which homophobia (and let's be honest: racism) drives the political decision-making of many voters in these counties, as they make up their minds about which political party to support.  And as they listen to their pastors tell them which political party stands with God and which is against God.

Certainly the election of an African-American president of the SBC and the reversal of over a century of overt, toxic racism is noteworthy and a step in the right direction.  But when the politics of racial repentance goes hand in hand with a politics that victimizes new targeted groups of human beings in the name of Christ, it's not nearly so clear to me that it's unambiguously good.  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.


Costly grace: when we do the right thing now, at a time in which it's costly to do so.  Because justice delayed is justice denied.

Cheap grace: when we admit many years down the road that we were dead wrong about opposing the human rights of a targeted minority, and only when there's no longer a price to be paid for standing on the side of justice.

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