Righting America

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The Toxic Populism of 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, and interim pastor of Emmanuel Friedens Federated Church, Schenectady, NY. He is also making final edits on his sixth book – Good and Evil in the Garden of Democracy – forthcoming in the next few months from Wipf and Stock (Cascades).

A photo of a middle-aged white male dressed in suit and tie sitting in a leather desk chair looking into the camera and holding his eye glasses in his right hand, with the caption: "R. Albert Mohler, Jr. President, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Louisville Kentucky"
Albert Mohler, 2021 Candidate for the Southern Baptist Convention. Image via Biblical Recorder.

The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) fits the populist frame suggested by Michael J. Lee. The populist narrative highlights the eternal virtue of the Founders’ vision yet distrusts its current form. The populist vision, or its “restorationism” in Richard Hofstadter’s view, locates political victory in the resurrection of a simpler idealized history.  Specifically, populism begins with the constitution of a virtuous “people,” then envisions a robust “enemy,” decries the current “system,” and finally finds the promise of reform in “apocalyptic confrontation.”

Viewing the recent national convention of the SBC in Nashville through the lens of Lee’s argumentative structure may provide us with a clearer view of what is happening in the SBC. I contend that the lifeblood of the SBC is the constant creation and demonizing of enemies. But lately the old enemies have lost meaning, become matter-of-fact, even boring. All Southern Baptists agree that liberals, socialists, the ACLU, evolutionary scientists, most other Christian denominations, gays and lesbians, and the radical left make up the rotten barrel of enemies. Preaching against these enemies has become like preaching to the choir. 

More than this, the enemies are now fighting back. The shamers are now shamed for their awful stances against minorities, gays, and immigrants. Always a group with extremely fragile feelings, this dis-ease among Southern Baptists has created a deep-seated resentment,  a determination to lash out at enemies.

In this context, Southern Baptists qualify as a sort of demonized populists. Lee says that this sort of populism comes to life in an identifiable people:  

First, a stable and definable “people” are portrayed as heroic defenders of “traditional” values. The “people” are rendered as ordinary, simple, honest, hard-working, God-fearing, and patriotic Americans. Commonality among these ordinary folks is evident in their similar ways of life. Hence, populism is a “language of inheritance” that “grows from a sense of aggrieved ‘peoplehood.'” 

Southern Baptists, already possessors of a populist version of the “priesthood of the believer,” have less trust in clergy and denominational leaders than ever before. Doctrinal purity tests are no longer sufficient to distinguish between the various candidates vying for national leadership. The recently elected president of the SBC, Rev. Litton, was criticized because his wife joined him in presenting a series of sermons about family life. This didn’t seem to impact the outcome of the election, but seems more like straining at a camel to swallow a nat. In any event, the rhetorical trope, “the people,” trumps the establishment and often raises its collective voice in opposition to the establishment.

Lee’s second trope of populism defines and labels the enemy. The “people’s” collective fantasy is a narrative of unseating an enemy that has an unyielding commitment to hoarding power and to the destruction of “traditional” values. In whatever manner the “people” and their “traditional” values are defined, the enemy stands in opposition. The enemy not only provides a sharp boundary rhetorically insulating the “people’s” identity, but the enemy also is a rhetorical purifier, a scapegoat for societal ills.

Given that their traditional enemies have become so dully self-evident, Southern Baptists now need new enemies. And there was nowhere to turn except to the denominational leadership. No matter that those elected to denominational leadership have long been one of the “people.” In this fractured time, maintaining membership in the “people” can be difficult. 

For example, for more than three decades, Dr. Albert Mohler, has been a strong leader and recognized theological spokesman for the SBC. In Nashville, an on-screen shot of Dr. Mohler holding one of his granddaughters was met with booing by the messengers of the convention. Mohler has been moved, through no fault of his own, from “the people” to “the enemy.” This is the way of demonized populism. There must always be more sacrificial lambs for the fires of the movement. The tragedy of this enemy-focused, enemy-dependent movement is that it finally turns on its own and becomes a form of political cannibalism. The SBC now finds itself embroiled in a self-destructive form of populism that has no viable future as long as having enemies is more important than having a positive vision for the future.

The third trope in the populist narrative is the “system.” The “system” is an amalgamation of numerous sites within the national political and economic order in which power is distributed, governed, and managed. In the case of the SBC, the system is the Executive Committee, the various boards and agencies of the denominational structure, and the seminary presidents. The “system” in this brand of dysfunctional populism cannot be trusted. 

At the top of the “system” is the newly elected president of the convention. Moments after his election, Rev. Litton became a part of the “system.” This means he is only one step from being labeled “the enemy.” Again, the prospect of self-destruction looms over the entire process.

Populist rhetoric features a fourth step, i.e., apocalyptic confrontation as the vehicle for revolutionary change. The SBC response to a presidential election has apocalyptic confrontation embedded in its very existence. Thousands of “messengers” were bussed to Nashville in an effort to win the election for the far-right candidate. This strategy has attained almost god-like status among Southern Baptists, because this is exactly how the first “fundamentalist takeover” occurred. This foreboding sense that the SBC is surrounded by enemies, has enemies on the inside, and is facing a catastrophic disaster, plays into the prevailing “Left Behind” apocalyptic mindset of “the people.”

Apocalyptic confrontation rises from the archetypal metaphor, “Life is war.” Once this becomes reality, there is no choice but to engage in the use of the tropes of “destruction.” Decry the destruction that is taking place as the “system” and the “enemies” are pushing the denomination to the left. There is little hope of a change in direction because the prevailing winds are, in apocalyptic terms, hurricanes, earthquakes, and tsunamis.

The Southern Baptists, an entity of toxic, demonized populism, have set the table for an ultimate dismantling of the entire system. Looking at the SBC through the rhetorical lens of populist tropes we are able to identify the people, the enemy, the system, and the apocalyptic conflagration that always erupts. 

The Southern Baptists now resemble the strange story of I Kings 13. A prophet was sent to warn the establishment of the judgment of God. There was another prophet – “an old prophet in Bethel” – who heard what the man of God had said to the king. He found this preacher and invited him home for dinner. The preacher at first refused the invitation, but the old preacher from Bethel said, “I also am a prophet as you are.” He told the preacher that an angel of the Lord has instructed him to eat with him. The Scripture pronounces a fatal word: “But he was deceiving him.” End result: the prophet, after eating and drinking with the deceitful preacher, left for home. “A lion met him on the road and killed him.” 

Strange story, no doubt — but preachers destroying preachers rings out a bell of warning to the SBC. 

And for another story on the toxicity that is the Southern Baptist Convention, check out this remarkable article from Cedarville University’s underground magazine, the Cedarville Interpreter: The Paige of Enlightenment (or Not).