The evil genius of modern Baptists
DALE DEBAKCY examines the descent into ‘shambling self-parody’ of a religious movement founded on concern for equality and intellectual freedom
In the roll call of modern religious grotesqueries, few groups figure so prominently as the Baptists. Homosexuality correction centers. Hunting camps. Abortion clinic violence. Godhatesfags.com. Creationist textbooks.
All of these, and so many more humanity-crushing ideas have sprung from the collective evil genius of the modern Baptist movement, and in particular the Southern Baptist Convention.
How did a movement which, at its founding, stood for the most progressive and liberal ideas of its age, descend to a state of such shambling self-parody?
The answer lies in the twisting brambles of United States history. The first Baptist church in America was founded in 1639 by one of the truly and legitimately great men of this nation’s past, Roger Williams. He was unique in our increasingly blemished pantheon of colonial figures in that he did not believe the government had the right to enforce infractions of religious practice, and in his desire to deal honestly with Native Americans.
Of course, such a man had no place in the religiously authoritarian structure of 17th century Salem, and he was driven into the woods, quite literally, to survive as best he could.
Survive he did, however, and he founded our first colony which held religious freedom as a central organizing principle, where the content of your mind would not interfere with the safety of you or your family. This was a Baptism of profound conscience, founded with a concern for equality and intellectual freedom, and its subsequent history bore out these concerns.
When slavery ran rampant in the South, it was the Baptists and Methodists who stood in the front ranks against it. And yet, the Baptist church was, even
then, at its moment of greatest heroism, slowly nurturing the seeds of its own decline.
The true explosion in its membership occurred with the waves of Revivals that swept America in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The emphasis on emotion, on the subjective experience of religion, attracted droves of followers, and not only from the educated classes, where these movements usually thrash themselves out. Thousands were told that what they experienced as true was true, and once that sapling of a notion was planted, it inevitably outgrew and overshadowed the more fragile undergrowth of compassion and tolerance that Williams had risked everything to establish a century before.
Southern planters and their families wanted slavery to be okay, felt that it must be so, and with the official sanction of Awakening-wrought theology, were able to convince themselves that it was even godly, and the preachers followed suit. In these torments of self-justification, the Southern Baptist Convention was born.
The religion that began upon the most advanced principles of human dignity became the deft accomplice of gross degradation. Now, to be fair, the SBC did apologize for its overwhelmingly racist origin story (though not until 1995). However, it doesn’t appear to have actually learned anything from it, structurally. The same underpinnings of blustering confidence in the righteousness of one’s own life prejudices remained, even when the subject of that prejudice shifted.
The genius of Baptism as a religious denomination is its dressing of personal revulsion as a matter of mere scriptural adherence. In essence, they provide a brilliant proxy for your own hatred, allowing you the full scope of that hatred practically while still claiming a benevolent soul personally.
“We don’t hate the sinner, we hate the sin,” is the classic line of a movement filled with people who want to keep their lowhanging beliefs but not lose their friends.
It’s immensely self-deluded, of course, but also a very powerful combination for those who want the security of traditionalism but can’t stand to be judged themselves.
It’s a flexible position ideally suited to keep awful practices alive. This is why Southern Baptism has served for so long as the last refuge for social and religious ideas that more contemplative branches of Christianity have long since abandoned as untenable upon the briefest of reflections. Their current position statements are a veritable time capsule of the accumulated dross of American prejudice:
• We affirm God’s plan for marriage and sexual intimacy – one man, and one woman, for life. Homosexuality is not a “valid alternative lifestyle”.
• A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ. She, being in the image of God as is her husband and thus equal to him, has the Godgiven responsibility to respect her husband and to serve as his helper in managing the household and nurturing the next generation.
• We ask the people of the world to conform to Christ and His Word, and not to our merely human traditions.
• Procreation is a gift from God, a precious trust reserved for marriage. At the moment of conception, a new being enters the universe, a human being, a being created in God’s image. This human being deserves our protection, whatever the circumstances of conception.
Notice the artful framing of that last phrase, which somehow makes of a rape a miracle without even having the principle to name it as such. This blend of random prejudice parading as scriptural adherence and personal moral cowardice has been with the church for a century and a half now, and has found its fullest flowering in that nadir of humanity, the Westboro Baptist Church.
They created the site godhatesfags.com, picket funerals, and in every way are so thoroughly loathsome that even other Baptist churches can’t publically be seen to tolerate them.
And yet, their difference is just one of tact and method, not of belief. Westboro’s approach towards social truth and how it is revealed and upheld is not substantially different than that of mainstream Baptism.
Unlike with other religions, which have developed supplementary principles of morality against which personal opinion must be checked, the only requirement in the Baptist stated platform is the ability to find a line of scripture that approximately matches your opinion.
There is no secondary check, no way to know if you’ve gone too far or considered too little. Search through the Basic Beliefs section of the SBC’s website, and you’ll find a good deal about political hot-button topics, and nothing whatsoever on how to be a basically good person.
This lop-sidedness is, I have to admit at least some happiness in reporting, finally putting the brakes to Baptism’s 20th century juggernaut. It is still the largest Protestant denomination in the USA, but it is now experiencing a membership decline for the first time since the 19th century.
Putting all of their efforts into the creation of an all-hatred-yet-all-innocence façade stitched together by sumptuous amounts of doublethink was very effective for a world where adversarial thought was the order of the day.
That’s not really the case now, in a world intimately reliant upon cooperation for its basic functioning. The luxury of writing off different strips of humanity that we could afford in, say, 1952 or 1985, is too dear now, and fewer and fewer people are willing to buy themselves such a strangefitting self-conception at the price of their own mental flexibility.
Maybe the SBC will get smart and return itself to the high level of its 17th century betters. More likely, it will continu its policy of taking a century and a half to realize specific errors without noting the common factor that binds them all. But when that time comes, when it’s finally ready to apologize, to gays and women and teachers and doctors, will there be anybody left to listen?
• This piece first appeared in the March, 2014, edition of the Freethinker.