A ‘biblically based process to mitigate controversy surrounding this issue’ ain’t exactly prophetic

A ‘biblically based process to mitigate controversy surrounding this issue’ ain’t exactly prophetic August 5, 2020

Here is a story about a Republican Alabama state lawmaker who got himself into hot water by speaking at “The 21th [sic] Annual Birthday Celebration of Nathan Bedford Forrest“: “Alabama lawmaker who honored Klan leader says he’s surprised by criticism.”

Alabama Rep. Will Dismukes, a Republican from Prattville, says he’s surprised by the response to his recent Facebook post that showed him giving the invocation at an annual birthday celebration for Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Forrest was a leader in the Confederate Army and the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

The event was held Saturday at Fort Dixie in Selma, the same day the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis was remembered for his vast civil rights contributions during a service at Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church.

… Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle quickly condemned Dismukes for attending the event.

Republican Danny Garrett tweeted, “I cannot fathom why anyone in 2020 celebrates the birthday of the 1st KKK Grand Wizard. And while the body of a civil rights icon beaten by the Klan lies at state Capitol being honored by GOP/Dem leaders from all over the state. This mentality doesn’t represent me or my faith.”

Dismukes is an advocate for Confederate preservation and serves as the Chaplain for the Prattville Dragoons, Sons of the Confederate Veterans. Dismukes told WSFA 12 News he won’t apologize for his family’s heritage and their service during what he called the “war between the states,” which he doesn’t believe was primarily fought over slavery. Dismukes believes the public took a critical stance on the post due to the ongoing racial discourse across the country.

… Dismukes denies he’s a racist but doesn’t see the need for the current movement for racial reconciliation, calling the Black Lives Matter movement a communist organization.

That’s from a long, thorough report by Jennifer Horton of WSFA News, the local NBC affiliate in Montgomery. The story was also covered by The Alabama Baptist, because Rep. Dismukes also happened to be the pastor of a local Southern Baptist church: “Prattville Pastor Resigns Following Controversial Invocation.”

Alabama Baptist bivocational pastor Will Dismukes resigned from Pleasant Hill Baptist Church, Prattville, on July 29 following three days of backlash resulting from a Facebook post.

Dismukes, a Republican state representative whose district includes Prattville and Millbrook, gave the invocation July 25 at an annual birthday celebration for Nathan Bedford Forrest, a leader in the Confederate Army and the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, according to many historians.

… Mel Johnson, lead mission strategist for Autauga Baptist Association, of which Pleasant Hill is a member, participated in the previously scheduled July 29 deacon’s meeting at the church.

“I am grateful for the opportunity to have met with the church’s leadership for prayer and encouragement as many, through no fault of their own, have found themselves caught in the midst of this issue that has drawn national attention,” Johnson said. “I am also thankful that Autauga Baptist churches can move forward and remain focused toward Great Commission efforts to communicate the gospel and reach our world for Christ.

“Scripture is clear that all people are created in God’s image and therefore equal in every way before Christ and our personal need of Him as Savior and Lord.

“Immediate effort was made to connect with Will on behalf of our leadership with commitment toward a biblically based process to mitigate controversy surrounding this issue,” Johnson explained. “He was open and receptive to our call and subsequent in-person meeting on Tuesday afternoon (July 28).”

Rick Lance, executive director of the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions, added, “We are saddened and grieved to learn of the recent Facebook post by state Rep. Will Dismukes. … In the wake of tremendous controversy we reaffirm our opposition to any kind of racism.”

There’s a pretty stark contrast there between the clear condemnation from Dismukes’ Republican colleague in the first report and the mushy, evasive language used by the Southern Baptist leaders in the second. Unlike nearly all of the civic and political figures quoted in the “secular” report, the church leaders quoted in the sectarian press refuse to stake out a clear moral opposition to the immorality of Dismukes’ racism. They’re all focused, instead, on how “to mitigate controversy” — on how to make all of this just go away as quickly and as quietly as possible.

According to the Baptist spiritual leaders in that second report, this is the problem with celebrating the founder of the Klan: it stirs up “controversy.”

Take a look at the invitation letters to this Klan party, which were posted on Twitter by Alabama state Rep. Chris England. The event features music by “Unreconstructed Band,” a drawing for a bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest (“a wonderful asset to anyone’s Southern/Confederate Library”), and “ice cold watermelon served at the Pickaninny Freeze Watermelon Stand.” There’s nothing subtle about this.

Consider how spineless, mealy-mouthed, cowardly, and unprincipled you’d have to be to view all of that and worry only that it might possibly create “controversy.”

Yet condemnation of “controversy” seems to be the only response Baptist and white evangelical leaders have to this kind of thing. Seventy years ago, L. Nelson Bell was fiercely preaching a segregationist gospel in opposition to the Civil Rights Movement. Bell’s son-in-law, Billy Graham, eventually convinced him to tone it down a bit, not because it was sinful or immoral or because “If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?” but because Graham saw it as necessary “to mitigate controversy surrounding this issue.”

That was 1966. Here we are today in 2020 and this is how the magazine Graham founded, Christianity Today, reports on a pastor and a Klan rally: “Alabama Pastor Resigns After Praying at KKK Leader’s Birthday: Baptist leaders said the controversy was not good for his church.”

A 30-year-old Baptist pastor in Alabama stepped down from leadership at his country church due to the controversy surrounding his participation in an event honoring Confederate and Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Will Dismukes — who leads Pleasant Hill Baptist Church and also serves in the state legislature — gave the invocation at Forrest’s 199th birthday celebration in Selma on Saturday then posted a photo of himself standing in front of a portrait of the first KKK Grand Wizard and surrounded by Confederate flags.

… Dismukes, who also holds the position of chaplain for the Prattville Dragoons, a Sons of Confederate Veterans group, blamed the negative response on “anti-Southern sentiment” and “cancel culture.”

In a Politico/Morning Consult poll this month, more than half of evangelicals said they considered the Confederate flag more of a “symbol of Southern pride” than a “symbol of racism.” (43% of Americans overall agreed.)

His resignation comes as pastors face an extra level of scrutiny for their positions and as Americans rethink the place of Confederate leaders and symbols. Last month, Baptists in neighboring Mississippi joined the successful movement to remove the Confederate emblem from the state flag.

Why did this pastor have to step down? Because of the “controversy” and the “backlash” and the “pushback” and some nebulous “extra level of scrutiny.” If you’re wondering about the basis for all of that backlash, pushback, and scrutiny, that’s briefly addressed near the very bottom of that CT report, where it’s subcontracted out to historian Thomas Kidd:

Forrest, a Confederate General, was defeated in the Battle of Selma, but has continued to be celebrated there. As historian Thomas Kidd recently wrote for CT, a bust of Forrest was erected in Selma in 2000, stolen in 2012, and replaced in 2015. “Removing monuments to figures such as Forrest should be an easy call for Americans, especially for Christians,” Kidd said. “Forrest was a brilliant tactician, but also a Grand Wizard of the Klan. He committed racial atrocities in the name of a rebellion against the United States.”

Kidd is correct that not celebrating a Grand Wizard of the Klan “should be an easy call … especially for Christians.” But in practice this seems to be an impossibly difficult call for most white Christians.

Where is the “backlash” and the “pushback” and the “scrutiny” coming from? Not from white church leaders. Not from white church members. And not from the white church press.

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