Righting America

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Playing Nice with Fundamentalists is a Recipe for Disaster, or, See the Southern Baptist Convention | Righting America

by Rodney Kennedy

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 currently professor of homiletics at Palmer Theological Seminary. He is also putting the finishing touches on his sixth book: The Immaculate Mistake: How Southern Baptists and Other Evangelicals Gave Birth to Donald Trump. This post is drawn from the introduction to this book.

Former Southern Baptist Convention President Paige Paterson with a purple and black sports jacket holding a bible up in his right hand in front of a lectern.
Former Southern Baptist Convention President Paige Patterson. Photo courtesy of One News Now (2018)

Ignoring fundamentalists is like doing nothing about a small fire ant bed that suddenly appears in your back yard. Untreated, the fire ants, working furiously from below, out of sight of the rest of the world, will eventually build a mound that seems to stretch to the heavens, a kind of insect version of the biblical Tower of Babel. Once the fire ants are at full strength, if you poke a stick in the mound, they will send out waves of soldiers intent on afflicting as much pain on your body as possible. They spread out in formations, covering the ground in circular attacks within ten seconds of the alarm. Left untreated, your back yard will soon resemble something out of the apocalyptic mind of Tim LaHaye – mound after mound of these invasive creatures are everywhere. 

It is not a pretty sight. And fundamentalists are the fire ants of our culture and our churches. But from the 1920s to the 1970s most scholars and journalists, not to mention the world of mainline Christianity, simply ignored them. While the mainline was sleeping, blissfully safe and secure, a thriving evangelical world was evolving in the woods, a world in which credentials were a negative and being “anointed by God” was a necessity. While the intellectual elite was sleeping, comfortable in their knowledge that fundamentalism was dead, the “fire ants” were preparing their cultural and political invasion.   

See, for example, the story of moderate Southern Baptists in the 1970s. Fundamentalist students, armed with tape recorders, came to seminary classes, secretly taped the lectures of the professors, and made sure those lectures made their way to Paige Patterson and his allies. Seminary leaders thought all this was just a nuisance, not really paying that much attention because they had been lulled to sleep by the status quo of power and control which they enjoyed. Moderates controlled the convention, the institutions, the boards, and the major churches, and so they simply were not that concerned about the fundamentalist uprising. And then, when the moderates finally took notice, they insisted on responding to the attack by “playing nice.” It was not until after the fundamentalist “takeover” of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) did it dawn on the moderates that, by ignoring and misjudging and placating the fundamentalists, they had lost the denomination. 

Of course, in response to the recent sexual abuse scandal in the SBC, a “moderate” (J. D. Greear) was elected president of the convention. But then this “moderate”  dared to speak up about the legacy of slavery, dared to suggest that “if the church is to change our nation’s story for the future, we must begin by knowing and owning the story of our” 246 years of slavery. In response, white Southern Baptist knights on white horses (surprisingly, no white robes) rose like ragged Confederate soldiers from the gray swamp mist to defend white people with white-knuckled rage. It’s as if someone had restarted the Civil War. Southern Baptists have an unfettered gift for attacking their perceived enemies with unrelenting harshness, even if that happens to be one of their own elected leaders. Such an attack has now been turned loose on the SBC President, Rev. J. D. Greear. His fellow Southern Baptists, mincing no words, leaving no ill-mannered rock unturned, gathered on anti-social media to treat him as if he were as worthy of stoning as the woman in the gospels who was allegedly “caught in the throes of adultery.” One responder accused Rev. Greear of not being a “Bible-believing conservative.” Others implied that he was under the influence of something called “Neo-Marxism.” Still others doubted his basic intelligence, calling him “bone-headed,” while others charged him with being “one sick, disgruntled, disruptive, instigating, race-baiting, discouraging man.”  

These nasty messages came from fellow Southern Baptists, infuriated that their president, who claims to be a godly and faithful Christian, could say these things about slavery and the need for repentance. If Baptists practiced excommunication, I think there would be a movement to excommunicate the president.  There’s no limit to the over-stoked, hyper-emotional religious bullying that is now a constant in Southern Baptist life when someone dares to trespass the fundamentalist party line. Obviously, the SBC president has discovered that he should be using a paintbrush to “whiteout” all due historical diligence about slavery.  

This is but one of many examples that led me to the unfortunate conclusion that there are only two ways to deal with a fundamentalist: Agree with him or hit him in the mouth (rhetorically speaking, of course). I am of the latter persuasion. I was raised a fundamentalist and imbibed not only the theology but the method. Even though I rejected fundamentalism by the time I was a student at Louisiana Baptist College, I never really took off the armor or surrendered my sword. My combative nature is a direct product of my upbringing, and it still shows in my writing and, at times, in my preaching. And I know from my experience in the SBC that “playing nice” with fundamentalists is simply tantamount to surrender.