The Southern Baptists’ White Abstract of White Principles

The Southern Baptists’ White Abstract of White Principles June 24, 2015

(Continuing the discussion from the previous post.)

The problem with Al Mohler’s attempt to grapple with the white supremacy of his Southern Baptist heroes can be seen in the title of his post: “The Heresy of Racial Superiority — Confronting the Past, and Confronting the Truth.” There, and throughout his essay, Mohler cannot quite bring himself to confront the whole truth by describing that heresy more precisely. The sin and theological error in question is not simply “racial superiority,” but specifically white superiority.

This problem pervades and limits Mohler’s entire discussion. He seems oblivious to the whiteness of white things.

Thus, for example, Mohler writes this:

More humbling still is the fact that many churches, churchmen, and theologians gave sanction to that ideology of racial superiority. While this was true throughout the southern churches, Southern Baptists bear a particular responsibility and burden of history. The Southern Baptist Convention was not only founded by slaveholders; it was founded by men who held to an ideology of racial superiority and who bathed that ideology in scandalous theological argument.

Rather than writing this:

More humbling still is the fact that many white churches, white churchmen, and white theologians gave sanction to that ideology of white superiority. While this was true throughout the white southern churches, white Southern Baptists bear a particular responsibility and burden of history. The Southern Baptist Convention was not only founded by white slaveholders; it was founded by white men who held to an ideology of white superiority and who bathed that ideology in scandalous white theological argument.

This proves to be immensely important later in Mohler’s essay, when he writes this:

I gladly stand with the founders of the Southern Baptist Convention and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in their courageous affirmation of biblical orthodoxy, Baptist beliefs, and missionary zeal. 

As we’ve just seen, this is not precisely true. Which is to say that it is precisely not true.

The founders of the Southern Baptist Convention and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary did not affirm biblical orthodoxy, Baptist beliefs, and missionary zeal. They affirmed white biblical orthodoxy, white Baptist beliefs, and white missionary zeal. Like Mohler, these 19th-century white Baptists did not perceive any distinction between those things. They saw no difference between “biblical orthodoxy” and white biblical orthodoxy, and thus were unable to perceive or conceive of any way the latter might not live up to the former.

Abstract
It’s a picture of a cow eating grass. And also a picture of Southern Baptist orthodoxy.

This blindness is conveyed by the title those 19th-century white Baptist founders gave to the core theological statement they bequeathed to Mohler and all their other white Southern Baptist heirs. It’s called the “Abstract of Principles.”

The oblivious precision of that title is almost beautiful. It perfectly captures the unwitting arrogance of their claim to be wholly abstracted from their circumstance, their culture, their ignorance and assumptions.

Here is the step that Al Mohler cannot take and cannot imagine. He has — commendably — acknowledged the whiteness of the “ideology of racial superiority” passed down to him by Boyce and Broadus and Manly and all those other white patriarchs of his white Baptist tradition. And he has — also commendably — recognized that “one cannot simultaneously hold to an ideology of racial superiority and rightly present the gospel of Jesus Christ.” But he cannot or will not face the whiteness of the understanding of “the gospel of Jesus Christ” that was also passed down to him by those same white forbears. 

Mohler can see the white supremacist ideology at work when Boyce and Broadus enlisted as chaplains in the Confederate army defending slavery. He can see that ideology at work in Manly’s whipping of his slaves. But he cannot concede that the same ideology might have been at work in their understanding and articulation of their theological Abstract of Principles.

That Abstract, Mohler wants to say, is exactly that — abstract. It is a Platonic ideal of “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” in no way influenced or infected with any of the particularities, sins, injustices, biases, errors or blindnesses of the white men who composed its formula.

The Abstract of Principles is a good tree, Mohler insists. The bad fruit must’ve come from somewhere else.

That claim is implausible. But it would be even more disturbing if it were believable. Understand what that would mean. If the formulation of “biblical orthodoxy” of Boyce, et. al., were something both correct and wholly distinct from their ideology of white supremacy, then we would have to conclude that right and proper biblical orthodoxy is wholly impotent and irrelevant. We would have to conclude that such perfect orthodoxy could do nothing to preserve us from the prevailing sins of our culture or age; that it can never compete with personal bias or personal preference or economic convenience; that it bears no relation at all to any form of orthopraxy.

That is not, as Mohler imagines, an argument in defense of traditional Southern Baptist theology. It is an argument against the first epistle of John. It is an argument that says the principles of religion are so very abstract that they mean nothing.

 

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