Inerrancy, white evangelicals, ‘and the sin of racism’

Emma Green’s “Southern Baptists and the Sin of Racism,” for The Atlantic is a good overview of what has changed — and what hasn’t — in the SBC thanks to the generational shift from Richard Land to Russell Moore.

Green doesn’t always navigate the maze of Baptist diversity perfectly (the NBC/ABC relationship trips her up), but she does a terrific job of illustrating the intrinsic whiteness of American evangelicalism by amplifying the voices of conservative black evangelicals.

And Green hits very close to the heart of the matter here:

Southern Baptists officially believe in biblical inerrancy, meaning that scripture is “truth, without any mixture of error,” a phrase that dates back to the confession of faith U.S. Baptists adopted in 1833. In 2012, the Southern Baptists voted to reaffirm their belief in inerrancy, in opposition to “some biblical scholars who identify themselves as evangelicals [who] have in recent years denied the historicity of Adam and Eve and of the fall of mankind into sin, among other historical assertions of Scripture.”

But if Southern Baptists in 1860 believed the scriptures justified a system of slavery based on race, and Southern Baptists in 2015 believe the scriptures justify total opposition to racial discrimination, did one group err?

At the very least, this proves that an inerrant Bible doesn’t amount to much without inerrant readers who can understand and interpret it inerrantly.

For the sake of argument, let’s grant the idea that the Bible is inerrant — that it provides “truth, without any mixture of error.” That still wouldn’t allow the Bible to function the way inerrantists want it to, because the humans reading such an inerrant Bible are not themselves inerrant. None of us approaches the text “without any mixture of error.” We humans are all — demonstrably as well as doctrinally — flawed, fallible and finite creatures who come to the text as mixtures of error. Even if the text were perfect, we would never be capable of reading it perfectly.

The Oracle at Delphi was inerrant. Fat lot of good that did anybody.
The Oracle at Delphi was inerrant. Fat lot of good that did anybody, though.

This is not a new insight. Some of the oldest stories we humans have told one another include this very same observation — that finite, imperfect people cannot be expected to perfectly comprehend perfect truth. All those stories about oracles and prophecies and genies granting wishes are there to remind us of that. And the history of the Southern Baptist Convention and its doctrine of “biblical inerrancy” is there to remind us of that too.

So it doesn’t really matter whether or not the Bible is the “inerrant” text that the Southern Baptists claim it to be. An inerrant text would still be read by us. It would be read no differently than any other text.

Overall, though, I think Green provides us a sharp image of the Southern Baptist Convention’s long, ugly struggle with what its leaders now at last admit is “the sin of racism.” But I think it’s a mirror image — accurate, but backwards.

Green identifies the SBC’s 19th-century embrace of “biblical inerrancy” as a contributing factor to its being utterly wrong about slavery. And she identifies white Southern Baptist’s individualistic understanding of their faith as an impediment to their ability to pursue “racial reconciliation” today. In both those cases, I think cause-and-effect work the other way around.

Southern Baptists did not get slavery wrong because they believed in “biblical inerrancy.” Their doctrine of biblical inerrancy was created to defend and sustain being wrong about slavery. And the individualism of white evangelical faith is not merely an obstacle to racial justice — it’s the product of centuries of injustice.

Both of these things — the idea of “inerrancy” and an individualistic understanding of salvation and faith — were designed to accommodate stark injustice. That is what they are for.

Inerrancy is an artifice constructed to provide a way of reading the Bible to defend slavery. Period. That’s where it comes from. That’s why it exists. It enabled Southern Baptists in 1833 and 1845 and 1965 to cite pro-slavery proof-texts in order to limit and to trump the Golden Rule. And it enabled them to read the Golden Rule without questioning whether it should be allowed to limit and to trump those pro-slavery proof-texts.

And the white evangelical ideal of individual salvation — a “personal Lord and savior” whose kingdom exists only in some otherworldly afterlife — was developed as a rationalization for the brutal injustice and denial of salvation that white Christians were determined to defend and endorse in this world and in this life. That’s where white evangelical individualism comes from. That’s why it exists.

The generational shift from Richard Land to Russell Moore marks genuine progress for the SBC. They’ve switched from a spokesman who didn’t want to be perceived as racist to a spokesman who actually doesn’t want to be racist.

That’s a positive change. But Moore’s apparently heartfelt calls for racial reconciliation are still taking place within a religious tradition that was indelibly shaped by the defense of slavery and white supremacy. And that tradition is still adamantly clinging to the mechanisms and habits it designed and developed for that purpose.

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