Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. The pastor of 7 Southern Baptist churches over the course of 20 years, he pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton (OH) – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years. He is now the interim senior pastor at the First Baptist Church of Peoria (which is also an American Baptist church). He is currently putting the finishing touches on his sixth book: The Immaculate Mistake: How Southern Baptists and Other Evangelicals Gave Birth to Donald Trump.
Last week, the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) elected a new president, the Rev. Dr. J. D. Greear, from Dunham, North Carolina. While some pundits have indicated that this represents a paradigm shift, I’m not convinced that the election of a president, a two-year and mostly ceremonial position, can actually produce revolution within the SBC. That said, I want it to be, and so I am praying that it will happen. As Baptist historian Buddy Shurden puts it, “The BIG church needs the SBC, and so does America now, more than ever before. The SBC is filled with some wonderful, faithful Christians, and they need leadership that will bring them back into the mainstream of American life, religiously and culturally.”
Southern Baptists are to be commended for confronting their own version of the #MeToo movement. Resolutions passed at the annual convention in Dallas were powerful statements of confession and repentance about the mistreatment of women. A month before the convention, Rick Patrick, an Alabama pastor, publisher of SBC Today and executive director of the Connect 316 ministry, apologized for an extraordinarily offensive Facebook post mocking prominent evangelical supporters of the #MeToo movement.
There is also much to applaud in the election of J. D. Greear as SBC president. He’s not a member of the old guard fundamentalists that have long dominated the SBC. As one can see by looking at Rev. Greear’s website, he is not a “culture war” guy in his public pronouncements. He is articulate, he sticks close to the biblical texts as he preaches, and he is appealing, comforting, and persuasive.
There’s nothing here to dislike. There’s also nothing here that suggests revolutionary change. Like a Texas river, what Greear preaches seems a mile wide and two inches deep. This is not surprising, given that he is the pastor of a mega-church. His ministry, like that of Joel Osteen and others across the country, is savvy, slick, smooth, and successful. There’s not much there to “turn the world upside down,” or create any sort of tension about beliefs and actions in the larger cultural/political context.
Instead of paradigm shift, what we seem to be witnessing is a slight adjustment that generational change always brings. While young SBC ministers have been trained in seminary to hold to inerrancy and literalism, they have, in fact, still been reading the Bible. I am convinced that God continues to use Scripture to change all sorts and kinds of churches. In fact, there are millions of people who are Southern Baptists, who read the Bible, who have never embraced the stringent fundamentalist theology of their leaders. This may, in time, engender a movement, from the “pew up” that undoes the current order.
But this will take time. I am incredulous that certain members of the media are claiming that the Southern Baptists are dropping out of the culture war. Yes, the SBC messengers indicated a desire to break from their rock-solid commitment to President Trump, but this will not be as easy as it sounds. The Southern Baptists and sundry other evangelicals created President Trump and it is a mistake to believe that they can back away from this deep commitment to his angry, racist, populist, protectionist, “America first and only” politics. President Trump imitates the authoritarian rhetoric of many Southern Baptist preachers, and his followers accept it as readily as they do the messages of their pastors. Call it the immaculate mistake, or how Southern Baptists and other conservative evangelicals gave birth to Donald Trump.
More than the deep attachment to culture war and Trump, real change in the SBC bumps up against a number of deeply entrenched factors:
1. Al Mohler
For all intents and purposes, Al Mohler, president at Southern Seminary, is the de facto pope of the Southern Baptist Convention. With the fall of Paige Patterson, Mohler now has even more influence. As Buddy Shurden accurately points out, “The leader of Southern Baptists for the last decade has been Al Mohler. He has produced more students, been on more national TV programs, is quoted by more writers about Southern Baptists, and is the person journalists turn to when they want to know what the SBC believes. He is a more principled, informed, and dogmatic fundamentalist than was Paige.”
The Calvinism promoted by Al Mohler and taught at Southern seminary is the vigorous 5-point, hyper-Calvinism. This rigid Calvinism mitigates against the possibility of the SBC becoming more moderate. It is much more likely that the SBC will become the Baptist version of the Presbyterian Church in America – the Calvinist Presbyterians located primarily in the South who in the 1970s rejected merger with mainline Presbyterianism – than becoming more moderate.
The doctrine of complementarianism (men and women are equal but have different roles) is also promoted by Mohler, and it will continue to dominate the SBC. In spite of the sudden impact of the #MeToo movement, women still will not be ordained to serve as pastors in the Southern Baptist Convention. This also means that the strident opposition to gays will remain intact given that, as William Sloane Coffin, Jr. observed, how a culture treats women is the way gays will be treated. Any breakdown in the hierarchical setup of the SBC, with its “authoritarian” understanding of sexuality and sexual roles, would cause a fight as large as the one that brought the fundamentalists to power in the 1980s.
Perhaps even more consequential in the long run is Mohler’s embracing of young earth creationism, and thus the influence of Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis on the SBC. The SBC can’t return to the center or rejoin the more ecumenical mainline churches while continuing to preach and teach a literal six-day creation, a young earth creationism, and an anti-science ideology.
5. Contempt for Social Gospel
Deeply tied to individualism, Southern Baptists are not ready to embrace any part of the social gospel (which they view with contempt). It is hard to imagine Southern Baptists aligning with the mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic commitment to the social nature of the gospel.
6. Americanization of Faith
Finally, the SBC preaches a “hybrid” religion that promotes patriotism as a Christian virtue and that constantly insists that America is a Christian nation. One of the leading proponents of these notions is the Rev. Robert Jeffress of FBC Dallas. The SBC has largely abandoned the historic Baptist commitment to the separation of church and state, as the individualism, the politics, the aggressive capitalism of the American way of life has conquered the SBC. There are more flags flying in places where crosses should be displayed in SBC churches, and the pledge of allegiance has become – in many ways – the SBC creed.
Given these deeply embedded ideological principles, it is very hard not to see the recent SBC convention in Dallas as anything more than window dressing. And yet, I am convinced that we must pray for a revolution in the SBC. The Southern Baptists are the heart and soul of the resurgent “old South” and with it come a lot of ideological creatures from the ghostly past. These creatures, disinterred from the grave, fuel the anger, racism, anti-immigrant animus, and opposition to female equality and gay rights so prevalent in the SBC. So, I will be praying for the revolution that so many commentators believe they are seeing in the SBC. And I’ll be praying for the organization’s new president, the Rev. Dr. J. D. Greear. May new leadership in the SBC and all the men and women who insisted upon that change lead the SBC, the South and, indeed, America out of the culture wars.