Hi and welcome back! Yesterday, we talked about how strange Ronnie Floyd’s VISION 2025 initiative seems. He wants the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) to put into place all this expanded room for more members, but doesn’t include any specific plans to get more members. I theorized at the time that maybe he planned to poach regressive evangelicals from other, more sensible denominations during this pandemic. Well, today we’ll see that this does indeed appear to be exactly what the SBC’s top leaders are counting on. They’re deliberately sowing division to bring vaccine denialists and QAnon- and Trump-addled Christians to their increasingly-regressive banner.
Quick Christianese: ‘Division.’
Division ain’t just an operation in mathematics. In Christianese, it indicates a serious argument in a Christian group. This argument threatens to push the members apart from each other. It could even destroy the group itself.
When you hear this word, always imagine that it’s like regular worldly arguments, but with extra Jesus flavoring. In this case, Christians imagine that sin or even demons cause this friction.
Sometimes you’ll see Christians use the term in phrases like “sowing discord/strife.” It means division as well.
(“Worldly,” in turn, means anything that isn’t 100% focused on Jesus, which can definitely include other Christians. “Sin” is an offense against the petulant, hypersensitive, easily-angered Christian god. It might or might not involve harm to anybody at all. Heck, it might just involve thoughtcrime.)
And there’s a lot of stuff, like a lot a lot of stuff, in Christianity that divides Christians like that — especially nowadays. Bless their li’l cotton socks, they’re even divided about what should be dividing them.
Perhaps you’re thinking that authoritarian groups must have a field day with defining any rightful complaints against their operations as division and the complainers as being sinful or demon-controlled. If so, then well, you understand evangelicals. Indeed, such groups often invoke this Christianese to silence opposition.
That said, you’ll see even the nicest Christians using the phrase. You can see it in the wild here, as one such Christian tries to spur her hypocritical cousins to do the right thing. It won’t work, of course. It never works to try to turn authoritarians’ weapons against them. But it’s an interesting attempt.
The Grand Division Over Vaccination and Distancing.
Very little is causing division within Christianity quite like this pandemic. White evangelicals’ full-throated idolization of Donald Trump led them straight into the arms of the QAnon trolls from chan culture. And QAnon’s masters pushed all manner of wild conspiracy theories into the minds of vulnerable people who had absolutely no defense against this indoctrination. When COVID-19 became a pandemic, QAnon’s masters immediately adopted it.
QAnon was already causing division within white evangelical churches before the conspiracy theory added anti-vaxx rhetoric to its platform. Now, there’s no going back. Churches are splitting at the seams over arguments about vaccination and social distancing.
A few months ago, exvangelical Chrissy Stroop expertly deployed this Christianese in a post about that division. In it, she summarizes the problem evangelical leaders are having:
. . . while it might help if the “respectable” evangelicals who support vaccination would take some real responsibility for creating the monster, it seems highly unlikely that they will do so in any meaningful sense. In order to get to the root of the problem, after all, they would have to address the authoritarian aspects of their own patriarchal, anti-LGBTQ theology, and they would have to be capable of overhauling evangelical education such that it would no longer promote “alternative facts.” [Source.]
I completely agree.
Evangelical leaders are in a quandary here. Their flocks are dissolving over COVID-19 infighting. And they’re having to make some tough decisions about how to retain as many of those flocks as they can — and maybe even see some growth during these trying times.
Using Division to Spark Growth: Revealing the Strategy.
This brings us to today’s story.
On September 9th, President Joe Biden announced vaccine mandates for any business with more than 100 employees. At these businesses, employees must either show proof of vaccination OR get a negative COVID-19 test every week. Hefty fines for business owners ensure their compliance.
It’s not quite the end-of-the-world situation evangelicals are imagining. Of course.
According to this source, which got its data from the U.S. Census Bureau, only 1.9% of American businesses even have more than 100 employees. And there’s other business types, like “nonemployer businesses,” which often consist of only one person. (Real estate agents, independent contractors, etc. fall into this category.) So Joe Biden isn’t talking about that many businesses at all here.
President Biden also announced vaccination requirements for workers in various specific fields. These include health care workers, Head Start employees (that’s a sort of preschool for poor children), and federal employees/contractors.
And the leaders of the SBC clearly realized they had pure gold on the table that they were not willing to leave there. Al Mohler rushed to the presses. It’s hard not to see giddy anticipation in his reaction.
The Clarion Call of Deliberate Division.
In a statement provided by Baptist Press, the news division of the SBC, Al Mohler said:
“We encourage vaccination but oppose mandated vaccination. We are watching the situation closely and fully expect multiple legal challenges to be filed against the President’s announced mandate to private employers.”
Nor was he the only SBC leader to talk like this. That same article gave us this hot take:
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary president Adam W. Greenway echoed Mohler’s sentiment saying that while he respects “the decisions of those who for medical reasons or conscientious objections have declined to be vaccinated, a government-mandated vaccination program of private businesses and institutions is deeply troubling. Regrettably, the President’s actions will bring further division and polarization to a nation that is already profoundly divided.”
(Gee, who divided it?)
And this one. Watch for the magic Christianese word at the end:
Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, told Baptist Press that he believes “getting vaccinated is in the best interest of national health. However, an emergency mandate through regulatory action by the Department of Labor is the government trespassing on civil liberties. I am always wary of government overreach and infringements on our liberties. Further, I found the President’s bullying language towards the unvaccinated troubling and unnecessarily divisive.”
(Also, score one for the “wait, that’s what WE say about abortion” team.)
The post goes on and on like that, with only occasional forays into semi-sanity from Ben Mandrell, the new chief of Lifeway, and something similar from the SBC’s financial-planning subgroup GuideStone Financial Services.
(At the end, the post mentions without comment the fact that the International Mission Board (IMB) had already announced a vaccine mandate before the President’s announcement. Spicy!)
And just like that, I realized what the SBC’s leaders are doing here.
Look at All Those Empty New Churches.
Yesterday, we saw Ronnie Floyd finally get to unveil his big shiny new “VISION 2025” initiative. It calls for a vast increase in the number of churches in the SBC, way more missionaries, and a huge focus on indoctrinating any children the SBC can get its hands on. And all that struck me as enormously odd.
Individual church pastors sometimes get this idea that if they build it, then then the flocks will come. But it’s hard to fathom Ronnie Floyd being that kind of gormless idiot. He has to know that churches are businesses, and thus that they operate according to all the usual business principles.
One of the big principles involved here is supply and demand. If someone plunks down a church in an area where there’s absolutely no demand for that kind of church, no magical invisible friends will secretly and psychically persuade anybody to join up. It will die. Now, I can easily believe that Ronnie Floyd is perfectly okay with spending millions of dollars and wasting tons of people’s time and putting church staff and members alike through the anguish of closing up a beloved church.
But I really do think that he expects something to happen that will put butts in those churches’ pews (for that all-important Butts in Pews, or BIP, metric we talk about all the time here).
And now I think the SBC is playing coy about vaccination to poach regressive evangelicals from other competing denominations.
How Churches Poach Members From Each Other.
We have a lot of research nowadays (particularly from Paul Djupe, a name to watch for sure) regarding how Christians hop across churches and denominations. One of the primary movers these days is politics. When Christians’ pastors express a political view that differs from their own, often they decide to jump ship.
And it doesn’t matter, here, if the people involved are liberal or conservative. What matters is that their current pastor expresses a political view that these church member just can’t agree with.
If the flocks start thinking that the overall politics of their entire organization are intolerable, they might just leave church culture behind. They might deconvert or become what I call churchless believers. But many others will seek out a church that echoes their political opinions.
Regressive Christians, in particular, will seek out a church that won’t judge them for being anti-vaxxer QAnon wingnuts. Hopefully, they’ll even find one that encourages this thinking.
So when we talk about churches splitting at the seams with division, we’re talking about the people who agree with the pastors of those churches and stick around, and those who disagree and either try to fire the pastor, or else leave for other churches.
All that’s happening now is that the SBC is more overtly weaponizing this process than it has in years past.
Sowing Division to Get — What Kind of Members, Exactly?
The SBC’s statements all point to one thing. The denomination’s leaders have decided to try to play both sides of the QAnon field. They don’t want to condemn paying members for being anti-vaxxer QAnon wingnuts. But they also don’t want to see those wingnuts getting into fights with their enemies.
The SBC thinks they can have both players in their sandbox.
Gamers know that’s not possible. Toxic people poison their entire group. They drag everyone down to their level. They can’t help doing it. Really, it’s just their nature.
But as Chrissy Stroop pointed out in her article (relink), the anti-vaxxer QAnon wingnuts aren’t content to live and let live. Once they join these empty, shiny new SBC churches, they’re going to try to force their ideas on the people around themselves. Their Happy Pretendy Fun Time Game doesn’t work for them if everyone around them isn’t fully on board. Making matters worse, their real leaders — who are not their pastors, and certainly not the SBC’s leaders — have apparently told them that vaccinated people are somehow dangerous to them.
Years ago, the Republican Party of the United States thought they could corral the racist wingnuts they’d invited into their party to boost their voter base. The leaders of the Grand Old Party were dead wrong there. Similarly, today the SBC’s leaders think they can invite QAnon wingnuts into their increasing numbers of churches to boost their sagging membership rolls and it not result in drama and catastrophe.
They, too, will be dead wrong. But hey, by the time those chickens come home to roost, the leaders of the SBC will hopefully be long gone — along with the money the flocks gave them to wreck their denomination for good.
NEXT UP: LSP!
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