Last week I went to the Southern Baptist National Convention for the first time in my life. Even though I had been a Southern Baptist for about a decade after becoming a Christian, I did not have the opportunity to go back then. This year I was asked to serve on a panel dealing with racial reconciliation. Coming back to the denomination with the skills I have developed as a social observer has given me some new perspectives of my former and now current denomination. So here are some of my takeaways of my experience in no particular order.
1. There are priorities within the Southern Baptists that go beyond mere conservative Protestantism. Of course it is a given that the Southern Baptists have a high priority on evangelism and traditional morality. But that is true for just about any conservative Protestant congregation. The Southern Baptists also have certain priorities that are more or less unique to their expression of that religious tradition.
For example, I noticed that all candidates for their offices were described by not only their accomplishment in ministry but also by how long they had been married and how many children/grandchildren they had. Indeed it seems to me that the lowest number of children any of the candidates had was four, and I remember at least one that had six. I joked with one of the pastors from my church that he had better get a couple more children if he wants to advance since he has only three. The Southern Baptists are definitely pro-natalist.
Another priority that came to me was the focus on how much money was given to their mission programs. It was reported how much money the candidate’s churches gave and there was a resolution for more information. I also found out that the number of representatives a church received was tied to how much money the church gave to the larger Southern Baptist denomination.
My guess is that this priority is valuable to the larger organization as it helps to ensure a certain level of in-group identity for the churches. After all we generally develop our loyalty to the organization where we send our money. In a denomination that prides itself on the autonomy of each congregation, there may be a higher need to insure in-group loyalty with such a priority.
2. The speech from the Vice President was a mess. I did not come back for that speech but watched it later online. It clearly was a political rally more than a sermon. I have always felt uncomfortable with a politician who is currently in office speaking from the pulpit and Vice President Pence certainly illustrated why this is not a wise move. He talked about Trump so much that one may have thought that he was the one being worshiped that morning. In my opinion, other than having a mayor or governor providing a welcome to the city/state where the convention is being held, we should not have a politician who is currently in office on the stage of another convention, and certainly he or she should not deliver a sermon.
I was not the only one there who felt that way. In fact most of the people I talked to felt that way as well. That is likely a function of the friendship networks in this denomination, but at least one of them is high up in the leadership of this denomination. In addition, there were five resolutions attempting to either remove Pence as speaker or not allow politicians as speakers in the future. My hope is that one of them that does the latter will be implemented in the near future.
3. We have to become a prophetic voice towards both political parties. A major problem of having Pence come speak is that it furthers the narrative that to be a Christian automatically means that one is a Republican. Let me be clear that I would have been equally troubled if we had some Democratic politician delivering the sermon as well. I believe that the church should be a prophetic voice to both political parties. We can support them when they do what is right but we should not be so committed to a political ideology that we lose our ability to critique them. I fear that this has happened for many Southern Baptists.
It has happened in part because the Democratic party has serious problems with issues of free speech and freedom of religion. I make no bones about my strong hesitation to support Democrats until they seriously address those issues. I know that many of my Christian friends would also be concerned about issues of life, and I share those concerns, yet my greater fear is the willingness I have seen among many Democrats and progressives to dismiss the rights of speech and conscience of their political opponents.
But pointing at the problems among Democrats has led many Christians to ignore the problems among Republicans. The Republicans are the party that ignores racial disparities and refuses to welcome the strangers to our shores. I also see an insensitivity among many Republicans for the “least of these.” I am not going to go in depth about the sort of public policy implications connected to these ideas as that would take me far away from my major point which is that the Republican party is not worthy of worship. When you throw in the current leader who I personally see as amoral and incompetent, then one can understand why many of us are wary of the alliance some Southern Baptists have made with the Republican Party.
I believe that the church is at its best when we are not in the pocket of either party. We are at our best when we propose a standard that is separate from the socially constructed political ideologies that govern us today and then work towards holding both parties towards that standard. I have no problem with Christians who believe that one party better meets that standard than others. I have big problems when they take that preference as license to abandon our greater standard to slavishly adopt the standard, or platform, of that party.
4. There was a lot of talk about racial issues at the convention. Indeed there was more talk than I anticipated. I knew when serving on a panel that dealt with racial reconciliation that I would disproportionally be surrounded by individuals interested in dealing with the racial divide. But even from the pulpit, there was talk about dealing with the sin of racial prejudice and racism. So I think the attention to the issue is real.
This does not mean that I have concluded that the Southern Baptists have solved the problems of racism. Indeed the invitation of the Vice President to speak, after the removal of Paige Patterson, was one of the most tone-deaf moves one could have imagined. It was a move done over the objections of people of color who were there, and I assure you that this move did not help race relations among the Southern Baptists. It can be fair to argue that at this point much of the attention to racism is surface and has not truly penetrated into the soul of the denomination.But it is a start. And it is much better that there is conversation on racial issues than a silencing of voices. In time I hope to see a flowering of race relations among Southern Baptists. While I think there are multiple issues where I hope to have an influence in the denomination, I suspect that this will be the one where I can have the greatest influence. Given my previous academic and public work on dealing with racism as well as my unique approach to those issues, I have a natural ability to address the racial alienation in this denomination.
5. There was not as much talk on gender issues as racial issues. Given the recent controversies tied to Patterson and MeTooism, I was surprised that there was not more focus on gender issues at this conference. There were a couple of resolutions and I learned of some actions behind the scenes, but I fully anticipated that racial issues would be shelved for this conference so that there could be a focus on the issues of the day. Instead it was the other way around and I thought I saw more of a focus on racial, rather than gender, issues.
I have a theory as to why this is the case. The willingness of Southern Baptists to at least bring up racial issues did not emerge from a vacuum. It developed due to years of discussion about the historical horrors and the contemporary effects of racism. Given these years of attention, the conversation occurring this year was an extension of the conversation that had occurred earlier. It is entirely possible, and even likely, that this year starts the conversation on gender within the Southern Baptist Convention. But that conversation may need years to get to where we are at today on racial issues.
My prediction is that you are going to see changes in the Southern Baptist Convention over time. They probably never will get to where I am on the issues, but they are not going to remain as blind about what has happened to our sisters as they have been in the past. I know that where they wind up will not satisfy those with radical feminist agendas, but that is what cultural diversity is about. The Southern Baptists will find solutions that fit with their worldview and implement them in ways that better protect women than they have in the past.
6. I saw a fantastic example of active listening at my panel. In my previous book, I outlined four general perspectives individuals tend to take when talking about racial issues. The organizer of the panel took those perspectives and made a tape of someone articulating each of them. For example, one of the perspectives is colorblindness, or the notion that the best way to deal with racism is to ignore race (This is an oversimplification of that perspective, but I think you get the drift). The speaker on the tape sounded just like someone who had that perspective. The organizer did this with each of the other three perspectives as well.
Now this is the key. While I could quibble with a word or two, for the most part I think individuals in those perspectives would recognize themselves in the tapes. For example, I truly can see how someone with a colorblind perspective would state that the ideas emerging from that tape captured how they thought about race. The organizer, who clearly does not agree with all of the perspectives could only do this by active listening to individuals with these perspectives. That is what true actively listening allows us to do. We can articulate the ideas of others in ways where they agree that we have accurately captured their thinking.
So when someone tells me that the evangelical Trump voter supported him because they were tired of a black president, I know they have not actively listened. Oh I know that racist evangelical Trump supporters exist. But I have talked with dozens of evangelical Trump supporters and none of them bring up the race of President Obama. Those who argue that this is a driving force in the evangelical vote have listened in a way to support their current political and social agenda. They want to believe that Trump supporters are a bunch of racists, and they listen for data to confirm their bias.
The reason why active listening is so important is that we are not going to solve problems in our polarized society without understanding the perspective of others. It is only when we understand different perspectives that we have any hope to find solutions that meet the needs of most individuals rather than only those of a particular group. The alternative is to fight to suppress all who disagree with us. I think many, on both the left and the right, prefer that option since it ensures total victory. But I think such victories will be short-lived because the “vanquished” will not go away since their concerns have not been heard.
7. There is a future for the Southern Baptists. I was very gratified to see the election of J.D. Greear as president. Not only because I have met him and feel that he is a person worthy to follow. But he represents the “young guns” I blogged about a couple of weeks ago. His election is not only about racial diversity, but it is also about not putting the Southern Baptists in the pocket of any political party. I trust that under the leadership of Greear that we will not have a repeat of having a political rally replacing a sermon. My hope is that we see an end to the Republicanism that has plagued this denomination over the past few years.
Indeed I fear that if Greear were not elected that there may have been a split in the Southern Baptists. I know that a lot of the younger and ethnic minority individuals in the denomination would have had a hard time staying in a denomination that seems to resist any type of change. This is not a knock on Ken Hemphill who ran against Greear as I believe him to be an honorable man. But he represented a direction that will not sustain Southern Baptists, and the change we need can now start to occur.
So I do feel optimistic, given the new direction I see us going as Southern Baptists. I am going to be critical of my chosen denomination when it is appropriate to do so, but I am also going stand up for them as well. I look forward to the changes we will see over the next few years and will do my best to have some input into them. Is this a perfect denomination? Of course not as such perfection does not exist this side of heaven. But God has seen fit to place me here for the foreseeable future, and I hope I can do some good.