The Defection of Jimmy Carter.

The Defection of Jimmy Carter. April 10, 2015

It’s a parable for the ages, really.

Once upon a time, what people knew about Jimmy Carter likely went along these lines: he was a one-term Democratic President of the United States, presiding over a time of great economic and political turmoil; he was involved in peanut farming before his Presidency and hugely charitable functions after that; and he was a Southern Baptist to his fingertips.

Well, one of those things stopped being true at one point, namely that he left the Southern Baptist Church a while back.

I was pretty surprised to notice that he’d turned off that road.

"Dirt Road," between Vorokhta and Hoverla base in Ukraine. (Credit: thisisbossi, Flickr, CC license.)
“Dirt Road,” between Vorokhta and Hoverla base in Ukraine. (Credit: thisisbossi, Flickr, CC license.)

Jimmy Carter, once one of the brightest lights in the otherwise-murky muck that is fast-becoming the SBC’s most identifying feature, publicly dissociated some years ago from that branch of Christianity. Later, in a heartfelt, sorrowful, and thunderous denunciation of the sexism he saw growing and worsening in his onetime church, he wrote:

I have been a practising [sic] Christian all my life and a deacon and Bible teacher for many years. My faith is a source of strength and comfort to me, as religious beliefs are to hundreds of millions of people around the world. So my decision to sever my ties with the Southern Baptist Convention, after six decades, was painful and difficult. It was, however, an unavoidable decision when the convention’s leaders, quoting a few carefully selected Bible verses and claiming that Eve was created second to Adam and was responsible for original sin, ordained that women must be “subservient” to their husbands and prohibited from serving as deacons, pastors or chaplains in the military service.

I have to admit, I never saw what Mr. Carter saw in the Southern Baptist Convention. It sounds like it was just a family tradition thing for him, sort of like how so many Mormons view their religion as simply a part of their culture. He has long been focused on charity, kindness, and helping the poor, while the Southern Baptist Church seems like it is at the forefront of the modern evangelical trend of poor-blaming (despite a resolution admonishing Baptists to support aid to the poor), what with their endorsement of the Ludicrously-Rich Old White Dudes’ Party in the last couple of American elections and increasing involvement in right-wing politics. Mr. Carter has long been an outspoken advocate for women’s rights, while the Southern Baptist Church is doing whatever it can to undermine those rights and roll society back to the 1950s, with a downright opportunistic change in stance on that last part alone marking them as hypocrites to the Bible they idolize, but the SBC gets worse the further one looks. Their racism is breathtaking to behold, despite having a black leader recently, exhibited in both large ways, like staunchly opposing desegregation in the early days of the Civil Rights movement–and small, like saying not one official word criticizing Republican voter-suppression efforts, which disproportionately affect poor people and minorities (both of them being groups that tend to vote Democrat). And they are at the forefront of the last gasp of anti-LGBTQ bigotry in Christianity, scrambling to convince their members and the world that hatred is really very loving and that discrimination is actually a form of religious freedom–a position Mr. Carter recently condemned as well.

In every single direction, the modern Southern Baptist Convention always seemed like a piss-poor fit for a man who got the Nobel Peace Prize back in 2002 for his tireless activism on behalf of the downtrodden, the poor, women, and those affected by political conflict, or for a person who serves on the Elders, an international council founded by Nelson Mandela and composed of men and women who once held political power but now go around the planet doing good for the world (sort of like a geriatric Justice League minus the super-powers and colorful leotards). Yet he still continued to claim membership in a church that, increasingly, stands for the dead opposite of all of those high ideals. Heck, they are barely coming around to vaguely supporting climate change action, backtracking their previous rejection of proposals to lessen mankind’s impact on climate, which Jimmy Carter’s been preaching about and exhorting people to do since he was President.

You know, I reckon all of us know Christians like him–or maybe were even like that ourselves once.

We look at people like him and think “Why are you hanging around with these hypocrites? You’re way too good for them.” We watch them struggling to reconcile their idealism with the rank hypocrisy of their churches, whatever those churches are, and wonder why they keep trying so hard to make it all fit together. I’ve seen and talked to countless Christians who wrestled with that question, who faced rejections and condemnation and still got up and kept trying to slog forward.

I’m not about to tell someone what should or shouldn’t be done in that person’s personal life, but I’m here to say that sometimes you can’t fix a group or person or people who simply don’t want to be fixed, and it’s okay to do what Mr. Carter did and just walk away. When I did, I felt like I’d lost fifty pounds of stress and heartache, and life suddenly began making a little more sense again.

I wonder how many people will need to leave, to defect, to publicly repudiate what is wrong, before these huge Christian denominations start looking more squarely at their failures and shortcomings, and how much they are hurting people both in and out of their pews.

The SBC’s general reaction to defections is and was to circle the wagons. The official SBC response to Mr. Carter’s defection was to call it “unfortunate” and to refer to what sound to me like very firm Scriptural objections on his part as merely “personal convictions.” The reaction also included a firm statement on the SBC’s part that adherence to orthodoxy belief mattered more to them than anything else: the person issuing that SBC statement also went on to say that the SBC “cannot maintain a relationship with anyone that would come at the expense of what we believe to be biblical truth.” In other words, they didn’t want him anyway if he was going to keep refusing to parrot the party line. That polarization has been biting them on the ass for years, but I don’t think they realize just how serious the situation is–though they might be starting to notice it, however dim and clouded their vision still is. And the realization is making the entire evangelical tribe even more harsh toward defectors.

I’ve watched, at a remove, Rachel Held Evans in her similar struggle with evangelicalism. (She wasn’t SBC, but the principles remain the same.) I was very impressed with how hard she fought to drag her tribe, kicking and screaming, every quarter-inch of the way toward her vision of a Christianity that really loved and accepted everyone and was known more for what it loved than what it hated. I’m not sure such a Christianity really ever existed, or could ever exist; there are no signs that such a Christianity has ever been possible, much less sustainable on the wide scale (I remember seeking it myself, but I only ever see it in a few isolated cases of individual Christians–hardly a testament to a religion’s value to humanity). But her vision was powerful enough that she spent considerable time and resources trying to make it happen–writing books and blog posts aplenty, speaking to huddled church leaders who never seemed to get it, and more.

In the end, she, too, was rejected so often (and abused so much) that she began to realize that her struggle to make Christianity better was eclipsing what she saw as Christianity’s main mission. And so she left evangelicalism. It didn’t go down well with her onetime tribe, any better than Jimmy Carter’s decision had been; between whining about how bigotry is just orders from the Man, they criticized her for becoming less hardcore, and just want to make sure she didn’t let the door hit her on the ass on her way out. It’s all unbelievably vicious-sounding to me, and I’m not even on the receiving end of this sterling sampling of “Christian love;” it sounds far more polarized and hostile, more aggressive and drilled-down, than the relatively minor rebukes that Mr. Carter got. I wonder if this aggression is happening as a result of how fast, how far right-wing Christianity is falling in the arenas of public opinion and group membership. In 2000 and 2009, when Mr. Carter said and wrote what he did, conservative Christianity wasn’t quite as panicky about its impending irrelevance. Now, however, they’re getting tetchy and overreactive.

But I can see why they are kicking so hard against the inevitable. Even though for years the biggest SBC groups don’t even use the SBC brand name in their titles, the brand itself has been an important enough association that the threat of expelling a member church for not toeing their party line on their favorite culture-war issues is still a useful blunt-force tool, dividing and even tearing apart churches when it is leveraged. They are 100% convinced, just as this pastor–talking about Rachel Held Evans’ departure from evangelicalism–is, that the message is perfect, so therefore if someone leaves the religion, then by absolute definition that means the person who left did something wrong, or understood something wrong, or wanted something wrong, or “just wanted to sin” (and readers of this blog know exactly what I think that euphemism means)–or that the pastor giving that message needs to find a better way to spin-doctor their stance on bigotry and sexism into something bullshit-sensitive young people will accept more easily.

This very, very, very loving examination of Jimmy Carter’s religious outlook serves as a general blueprint for the reactions from the Religious Right to defections: discredit the person leaving and drill down on the message’s perfection. It comes from a blog called First Things First, which bills itself rather misleadingly as “America’s Most Influential Journal of Religion and Public Life,” referring to the Noble Peace Prize winner and relentless global advocate for the voiceless as “irrelevant,” “ignorable,” and as “the Rodney Dangerfield of politicians,” going on to blather,

For decades we Southern Baptists have been trying to trade him to the Methodists, though they’ve persistently refused the terms (in exchange for taking the former POTUS off our hands we’ve offered to throw in three pews, a parking lot in Dallas, and a signed copy of Justin Bieber Blog Billy Graham’s autobiography).

I can feel the love wafting up from it, can’t you? Or is that fumes? (Conservative folks aren’t nearly as funny as they think they are.) I wonder if that writer realizes that he’s sharing his truest, most heartfelt opinion of a man who was for years one of the most visible, well-known faces of his denomination?

Often we don’t find out what people really think of us until we reject them. Just as the Nice Guy™ often spews forth abuse and savage, sexist insults toward the woman he was just moments beforehand drooling over and complimenting to the skies, Christians often savagely lash out at people who leave their religion. I’ve comforted more than my share of Christians and newly-minted ex-Christians who were simply astonished, caught utterly flat-footed, by this sudden reversal in treatment. All it takes to unleash this abuse is a rejection of one talking point (one poor guy I know earned the wrath of his entire faith community by saying out-loud that maybe Christians should concentrate more on what Jesus said to do, like being kind to people and doing charity work, than on fighting political battles), but you can imagine how much worse it gets when the rejection is of the entire religion or denomination.

With friends like that, who needs enemies?

I guess all that “turn the other cheek” stuff only applies when people are doing exactly what Christians want. (There appears to be a whole page’s worth of asterisks appended to that command that I never knew or suspected existed.)

And it’s also true that recovering from the worst parts of religion doesn’t necessarily have to mean actual deconversion. Rachel Held Evans is still a Christian, and so is Jimmy Carter; they just don’t identify the same way they used to. For me recovering from religion meant leaving the pool entirely, as it does for many others, and for others it may mean edging out of the religion pool bit by bit by bit. For others it might mean never leaving the pool at all but rather finding another part of it that is comfortable. When I was trying to figure this stuff out, I didn’t have anybody to talk to or any resources to consult, and I think that’s why it took me so long to come to the realizations and conclusions that I did. I don’t want to make that mistake ever again, or see someone struggle like I did once, feeling so alone and so isolated, and so uncertain about who to trust to talk over such a big decision. That doesn’t mean I don’t fiercely oppose religious overreach or a mindset that values beliefs over reality; it means that I know that people believe for a lot of reasons, and they’re a lot less likely to question their beliefs if they don’t feel safe.

So I’d rather meet people where they are and value them as they find their own answers than hold them to a formal orthodoxy of belief or disbelief and demand they either parrot a new party line or leave the entire table. I’d rather value people for what they do than for what they believe.

For those who are struggling and setting out on the road to find some answers, I would say this: the really surprising part about this journey is how little about you, personally, will change. Folks like Jimmy Carter or Rachel Held Evans are just good people, and they’d be good people no matter where they landed or what religion or non-religion they ended up pursuing. The label you apply to your feelings and actions might change–and it might change many times in a lifetime–but if those feelings and actions change much, it will be for the better. I don’t know many people who left religion and ended up worse people, that’s for sure.

A lot of the blowback we get when leaving religion–or even just leaving part of religion, or changing religion, or altering our views while remaining totally part of our old religion–isn’t about us. It’s about the people left behind, the ones who fear what is happening, the ones who can barely even see the problem but who hate it and loathe the changes coming their way.  The more people step away from the party line, the worse and more polarized, the more vicious and tone-deaf, the responses are going to get. But this is a road well-traveled by now, and you couldn’t possibly have more or  better companions on the journey. Wherever you turn off on the road, wherever you stop, wherever you end up, the important stuff is still going to be there; you’re still going to be you. The most shocking and startling part of a change in religious focus is how irrelevant you’re going to realize religion really is in making someone a good person.

In summary, you’re going to be okay.


* The SBC’s identity crisis.

* A Reuters piece explicitly linking the SBC with the GOP, calling them both “old, white, and in decline.”

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