Ben Carson and Baptist Identity

Ben Carson and Baptist Identity April 28, 2015

This week’s column comes from my piece at The Washington Post – “Southern Baptists canceled an event with Ben Carson. Here’s why it matters.” Southern Baptists find themselves in the midst of political controversy again over the upcoming appearance – now canceled – of Dr. Ben Carson at their Pastors’ Conference. Carson is a celebrated neurosurgeon, conservative commentator, and likely presidential candidate. A number of Baptist pastors, especially those affiliated with Baptist21, spoke out against Carson’s appearance. Their concerns were primarily that Carson, as a Seventh-Day Adventist, presumably holds doctrines that fit uneasily with evangelical theology, and Carson has made statements about Muslims, Jews, and Christians all being “God’s children.” Hosting Carson and other Republican candidates continues to convey the impression that the Southern Baptist Convention is “in bed with the Republican Party,” as Baptist21 put it. Leaders of the Pastors’ Conference thought better of it and “mutually agreed” with Carson that he would withdraw. This was a welcome outcome to what had the potential to be a serious snafu for the SBC. Whatever the organizers’ intentions, Baptist21 has this exactly right – hosting any political candidate carries a tacit implication of endorsement. Baptists and other evangelical denominations would do better to stop platforming political candidates at all. (This includes handing out political pamphlets and “voter guides” at church.)

Ben Carson speaking at CPAC 2015 in Washington, DC. Photo by Gage Skidmore, Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons 3.0 Sharealike Unported license

The Carson controversy highlights a major question of identity that, as my new book (with Barry Hankins) Baptists in America suggests, has been with Baptists a long time. Are Baptists insiders or outsiders in American politics and culture? The early experiences of Baptists in colonial America left no doubt – Baptists were persecuted outsiders. Horsewhipped for illegal preaching in Virginia, fined for failing to pay taxes to the Congregationalist Church in New England, they were widely reviled as troublemakers and outlaws. Over time, however, relentless evangelism and church planting turned Baptist churches into the largest Protestant cohort in America. In areas of the South, they still function like a kind of de facto established church. But are they still outsiders,  even if they dominate the American religious landscape? Read the rest here. [Friends, you can sign up here for my Thomas S. Kidd author newsletter. Each newsletter will update you on what’s happening in my writing and in the world of American religious and political history. It will contain unique material available only to subscribers, and each will help you keep up with my blog posts, books, and other writings from around the web. Your e-mail information will never be shared. Thanks!]

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  • kierkegaard71

    With the ascendancy of abortion rights, the homosexual movement as a political force, and increasing secularization, the pressure is on the conservative wing of the church: will conservative politics energize them them forward more than gospel ministry will? When this happens, time and energy is expended toward forming coalitions with other religious bodies (Protestant, Catholic, and other) to preserve the primacy of traditional religious values (not that this is wrong in and of itself). But the question is: to what are you giving yourself above all? Coming from a “baptist” (small b) perspective consonant with the historic Anabaptist focus, I would hope that the SBC would gladly exchange the pursuit of political influence for the fostering of a stronger corporate identity as a witnessing community for Jesus Christ.

  • RustbeltRick

    But the SBC, and conservative evangelicalism as a whole, is still very much in bed with the Republican Party. Cancelling one candidate’s appearance at one event hardly overturns 40 years of mobilization and mutual exploitation.

  • Andrew Dowling

    This whole event was comical in its ridiculousness and absurdity. “Intolerant person not intolerant enough for intolerant church faction”

    How anybody can be a Southern Baptist with a critical brain is beyond me.

  • Thomas Kidd

    Fine, I doubt there’s anything the SBC could do to convince you otherwise – but this does not mean the SBC should not do the right thing when given the chance.

  • If the great Founding-era Baptist John Leland’s church gave a 1200-lb. cheese to Thomas Jefferson to thank him for his defense of religious liberty, well, any defenders of religious liberty [who frankly reside far more in one US party than the other] should be welcome as flowers in spring.

    As [CNN’s Chris] Cuomo kept bringing the conversation back to the question of gay rights, Carson insisted that he would like to see more conversation about Christians and their rights.

    “Why are we not talking about that?” he asked.

    When it comes to politics and political parties, one size does not fit all.