America’s evangelical church is being torn apart by culture wars

一世s the Southern Baptist Convention – the largest and arguably most powerful Protestant denomination in the United States – being held together by culture wars instead of Biblical teaching? That is the question in recent weeks, as thousands of Southern Baptists gathered in Nashville for their annual meeting to determine the bitterly contested future of the convention.

Many conservative members of the denomination seem to have seen in Donald Trump’s populist authoritarianism a last-gasp chance to save white Christian America – theology, 和, for Trump, Christian morality, be damned.

I am a historian of evangelical Christianity and have written extensively on Southern Baptists. Although not Southern Baptist myself, over the past two decades I have often defended them as being serious about theology, even as that theology is often shaped in part by cultural concerns. 经过 2020, I had come to believe that conservatives of the right wing of the SBC were not just subordinating theology to the cultural concerns of white Christian identity politics, but had in fact lost their way as Baptists.

The most striking example of this is Al Mohler. Mohler is the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and arguably the Southern Baptist community’s leading intellectual. During the 2016 选举, Mohler was a never-Trumper, saying the candidate was “below the baseline level of human decency” that Christians could accept and vote for. His 注释 could not have been more forceful. Mohler was fighting what seemed to be a losing battle: 在 2016, Trump was elected with the support of around 80% of white evangelical voters and the endorsement of some of the SBC’s most powerful and respected conservative leaders, including Robert Jeffress, Franklin Graham, Jack Graham and others.

Yet by 2020, even Mohler had come around to endorse Trump’s re-election. He said he changed his mind because of Trump’s judicial appointees and the prospect of ending abortion on demand, but others saw it differently. Jonathan Merritt of the Atlantic speculated that Mohler was supporting Trump because he wanted to be president of the Southern Baptist Convention, which would serve as the crowning achievement of his career. Regardless of whether one accepts Merritt’s evaluation of Mohler’s motives, it seemed undeniable that if Mohler had remained the face of opposition to Trump it would have been difficult if not impossible to win the SBC presidency. No one hoping to be president of the SBC could be viewed as an opponent of the things Trump stands for in the eyes of white evangelicals – Christian nationalism, white Protestant America, religious liberty, restriction of immigration, restriction of abortion, and so forth.

Then an interesting thing happened at the SBC annual meeting last week. The ultraconservative, avowedly pro-Trump candidate, Mike Stone, and the centrist candidate calling for the SBC to step back from cultural war and concentrate on evangelism, missions, and racial justice, Ed Litton, finished in the first two places and went to a runoff; Mohler finished a distant third. Mohler’s intellectual culture-war approach may have 证明了 too elitist for a denomination, and a nation, now riven with populism. Or people on both sides simply viewed him as having lost his moral authority due to his flip-flop from never-Trump to pro-Trump.

The less political candidate, Litton, triumphed in the runoff, becoming SBC president by a dramatically narrow victory. 他 defeated Stone by a mere 556 votes, out of some 14,000. Southern Baptists who want a less partisan voice in the culture, independent of the Republican party, won this round, but this doesn’t mean that the SBC has fully turned a corner.

The division between that faction and the more explicitly rightwing, pro-Trump faction runs deep, though it’s not really about theology. Both sides are conservative and orthodox on the core issues of evangelical Christianity: that Christ appeared on earth as God in the flesh; that He was crucified, died, and was buried for the forgiveness of sins; that He literally rose from the dead and ascended to heaven, where He reigns with God the Father; and that He will come again in a glorious Second Coming. Both sides also oppose gay marriage and support wifely submission and a ban on women pastors, and believe in an “inerrant Bible”, although they disagree on how to apply its teaching to culture. As outgoing SBC president JD Greear argued in his farewell sermon last week, the differences between the two sides are not theological. Rather, it’s culture, and culture war, all the way down.

One side, the side that has temporarily regained control of the SBC, wants to focus on evangelism and mission work. They want to “provide a witness” on positions such as abortion and gay marriage but also on injustices related to race, gender, immigration and poverty that cleave to the Bible and not to a particular political party.

The other side, the side that lost last week, wants to be more political, more explicitly aligned with the Trump-era Republican party, and aggressively prosecute the culture wars. They are motivated, I believe, by an inordinate fear of being out of step with the Republican party’s brand of white identity politics – and its de facto leader, Trump. They believe white Christian America is embattled and surrounded by a hostile secular-liberal culture. Their only chance of survival, they believe, is to stay aligned with the Republican party against a radical left that threatens the Christian faith’s very existence in America and whose ideologies are seeping into the SBC, as Mike Stone charges. As he said as he geared up for his run at the SBC presidency: “Our Lord isn’t woke.”

Historically, critics of conservative Southern Baptist leaders have argued that SBC conservatives are not really as Biblically-motivated as they claim, and that theology is a kind of ruse for a cultural and political program – that they effectively tricked people into believing they were really concerned about the Bible when it was abortion, the teaching of evolution in schools, prayer in schools, gender issues in marriage and ministry, and so forth that made up their real concerns. Conservatives resented this charge, but it now increasingly feels like an accurate summation of the state of rightwing Southern Baptist politicking.

Unfortunately for evangelical Christianity, the future of the SBC probably relies more on the future of the Republican party than on theology or matters internal to the denomination. Having bound themselves to the Party in the 1980s, the SBC is finding it difficult to extricate itself from the clutches of rightwing culture war – the efforts of outgoing president Greear and incoming president Litton notwithstanding. As Greear put it in his outgoing address: “When the church gets in bed with politics, the church gets pregnant, and the offspring does not look like our Father in heaven.” This should be a cautionary tale for other evangelicals.

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