SBC Politics beyond Beth Moore (or will Southern Baptists save evangelicalism?)

I was listening to the Quick to Listen interview with Thomas Kidd about his new book, Who is An Evangelical, and heard a startling advertisement. Just about 32 minutes into the discussion, I heard Truett Seminary, the Southern Baptist institution for training ministers at Baylor University, plug its programs. Although the seminary describes itself as “orthodox” and “evangelical,” in that order, it also trains women to be pastors. The advertisement was explicit about that part of Truett’s endeavor. Here‘s an excerpt from a piece on Truett’s female alums:

Another reality for many Baptist women called to preach is whether to remain inside the Baptist denomination or to move to a denomination more open to female pastors. As Lillian enters her final semester at Truett, she is considering another denomination. As the daughter of a Baptist preacher and a Baptist all her life, this is a difficult decision to make. But Lillian is a woman in her fifties who has been divorced and she has to accept the fact that there may not be a place for her in Baptist life. She says, “I have already been turned down by one church as their music minister, because I was divorced. Being a woman and talking about preaching makes most people uncomfortable so I have to be careful what I say.” Lillian believes she is called to preach, not to divide churches. She loves the church and the people of God and believes that she will be a good pastor. Although the future is unclear, she resolves to remain hopeful, positive, and faithful to her call.

Leah also faced changing denominations, but says that she could not move because she is committed to Baptist beliefs and core ideas. She says, “…I see myself committing to this and so at the same time calling churches to committed to calling women, because I am not giving up on the Baptist church and the Baptist church doesn’t not need to be giving up on women either.”

Now, see if you can follow the bouncing balls.

Kidd has written a book about Protestants who have been generally opposed ordaining women. Evangelicals typically affirm traditional family values and roles for women (though that is not a big part of his book). Kidd is also a regular blogger at The Gospel Coalition which is firmly in the complementarian camp. The editors at Christianity Today who interviewed Kidd, at least one of them, is in a mainline Protestant denomination that ordains women. And the podcast is being sponsored by a Southern Baptist seminary that supports the ordination of women.

To add to potential confusion, maybe you younger readers have the visual dexterity, Kidd is going to teach part-time in the graduate programs at Midwestern Baptist Seminary, a school that admits women to the M.Div. but does not train them to preach:

Purpose: The Master of Divinity degree, Women’s Ministry concentration, cultivates a Christian lifestyle, offers instruction in classical theological disciplines, and develops theoretical understanding and practical skill related to women’s ministry.

Objectives: In addition to the Master of Divinity degree objectives, students graduating with the M.Div., Women’s Ministry concentration will be able to do the following:

Demonstrate understanding of the biblical and theological foundations of women’s ministry in the local church.

Demonstrate increased skill in the practice and leadership of women’s ministries in the local church.

In fact, women at MBTS take courses not in preaching but teaching.

If you want an additional shell to follow, consider that Ed Stetzer went from Lifeway Christian Resources to Wheaton College. Lifeway is the publisher for the SBC but also controlled by conservatives, the ones who are inerrantists and generally oppose female pastors. The moderates in the SBC look to Smyth & Helwys as their publisher for theology and biblical commentary. Wheaton College has many faculty in denominations that ordain women and even has had some female professors who are ordained to preach.

So, go ahead, try and correlate Southern Baptist conservatives with evangelicals. I dare you. See if it makes any sense for evangelical (what used to be a Yankee word in the SBC) institutions to establish closer ties with Southern Baptists except for increasing readership, audiences, enrollments, and subscriptions.

It makes you wonder about looking to conservatives in the SBC for leadership in evangelical circles if only because the Convention may be as soupy as evangelicalism. Look at what Trump has done to turn Southern Baptist conservatives from supporting Republicans to dabbling with progressives. Withdrawing support from the GOP is fine. It’s a free country. But it took Trump to do that?

And yet, because of their size and their presence in evangelical institutions like Christianity Today, Wheaton College, and The Gospel Coalition, Southern Baptists, no matter the previous identification with Republicans and their opposition to female preachers, are in a position to dominate an evangelical world that has no obvious successor to Billy Graham and the institutions that grew up around his endeavors.

Maybe the solution is Beth Moore. Maybe she can transcends all the parties and unite moderates and conservatives in the SBC along with evangelicals. Maybe she is the next Billy Graham. That way, if you like her, as George Marsden had it about Graham, you can be an evangelical.

The Politics of Scholarship on Evangelicalism

John Turner provides relief for those tired of the complaint about evangelical hypocrisy in voting for Donald Trump:

American evangelicals, white and otherwise, are far more interested in charity and evangelism than they are in politics. As Kidd comments, “charitable action is a more constant attribute of evangelicals than Republican political engagement is.” He then concludes, “we should not define evangelicalism by the 81 percent.” Rather, “being an evangelical entails certain beliefs, practices, and spiritual experiences.” For Kidd, voting for Donald Trump is tangential rather than central to the reality of most American evangelicals.

Two thoughts. 81%! Kidd suggests that pundits and scholars are hampered by definitional confusion about the definition of evangelical. Pollsters count many people as evangelical who would not define themselves that way. Still, 81%! I think Fitzgerald is correct. It’s not just that most nominal evangelicals voted Trump. Most committed, church-going white evangelicals did so as well. In fact, the more frequently people attended church, the more likely they were to vote Trump. This is one reason I attend a Presbyterian church. There’s no midweek worship, and you can be in and out in a shade more than an hour on Sundays. This inoculates me against Trump-voting. I won’t spend more time in church until after he leaves office, just in case. Hopefully he’ll be gone by the end of January 2020, and I can safely worship more frequently.

At the same time, I think we as historians err if we define evangelicalism – or our interests in evangelicalism – by that political statistic. Evangelicalism is not a political movement. Most churches that one might reasonably categorize as evangelical are not especially political, let alone hyper-partisan. Rather, those evangelical churches focus on weekly worship, small-group Bible studies, support for missions, and all sorts of other activities that rarely catch the attention of pundits.

Evangelicalism is primarily a phenomenon of religion. That makes sense.

But what did the emergence of the religious right during the Reagan era do to the scholarship on evangelicalism? And would anyone care about evangelicalism (if such a thing exists en mass) if not for politics?

In 1978, when Ernest R. Sandeen and Frederick Hale compiled an annotated bibliography on religious history, American Religion and Philosophy, evangelicalism did not even register an entry in the subject index, and the title index contained only four books or articles. By the early 1990s, when Butler felt he was drowning in a sea of born-again historiography, evangelicalism not only claimed more space in standard reference works but had grown to need its own. In 1990, Joel Carpenter and Edith Blumhofer produced the first bibliography exclusively on evangelicalism, Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism: A Guide to the Sources; and Norris Magnuson enlarged the corpus with American Evangelicalism: An Annotated Bibliography (1990), which he supplemented in 1996 with a second volume, American Evangelicalism II: First Bibliographical Supplement, 1990–1996. Reference works may not be the best guide to a subject’s popularity, but they do help to confirm that, during the last quarter of the twentieth century, evangelical Christianity went from merely a footnote in the fundamentalist controversy to a threat to the preeminence of mainline Protestantism.

The new scholarship on evangelicalism is clearly related to the surge of born-again involvement in electoral politics. Had the Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons not emerged throughout the 1980s and 1990s as politically powerful, most non-evangelical academics would have had few reasons to care about the development and legacy of revivals, biblical inerrancy, the second coming of Christ, or the events of the first chapter of Genesis. Christine Heyrman conceded in Southern Cross (1997) that “Evangelicalism’s complex beginnings in the early South would probably claim the curiosity of only a small circle of historians were it not for the fact that this legacy now shapes the character of conservative Protestant churches in every region of the United States.” Despite the boost the Protestant Right gave to students of evangelicalism, born-again historians have remained remarkably silent on politics, let alone evangelicalism’s assumed default political perspective, conservatism.

So as much as I want to agree with Turner, I continue to think that the world of evangelical higher learning and scholarship would not exist if not for a wider public wanting to know something about the politics of those odd people with Jesus in their bosoms.

Faith Matters but Not Enough to Follow Jesus

This week’s national holiday allowed the Gospel Coalition to don its patriotic colors and wave the flag of civil piety. A post by Thomas Kidd on the faith of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln took a fairly modest line by arguing that the first and sixteenth presidents were not orthodox Christians or even the best of believers. (This concession touched off a debate among the comments on the merits of Peter Lillback’s book on Washington, which is interesting in its own right.)

I believe that Washington, an Episcopalian, was a serious but moderate Christian, but there are reasons to wonder. Whether from personal scruples concerning his worthiness, or some other concern, he never took communion. And he displayed a remarkable aversion to using the name of Jesus in his voluminous correspondence. As Edward G. Lengel’s delightful Inventing George Washington has shown, 19th-century biographers eagerly recalled shadowy memories of Washington being discovered praying privately, to the extent that you’d think the man did little else besides kneeling in the woods. He almost certainly did pray privately, but as a proper Virginia gentleman, he did not wear his faith on his sleeve.

There are graver doubts about Lincoln’s faith, especially early in his life. He developed a reputation as a skeptic as a young lawyer in Springfield, Illinois, and Mary Todd Lincoln concluded that he was not a “technical Christian.” He struggled to put his faith in Christ even as the events of later years took the edge off his religious infidelity. Lincoln grew up in a strongly Calvinist Baptist family, and though he did not embrace all his parents’ beliefs, he became ever-more convinced of the Calvinist doctrine of God’s sovereign rule over human affairs. Richard Carwardine, one of Lincoln’s finest biographers, says that Lincoln presented “his deterministic faith in a religious language that invoked an all-controlling God.”

But despite the weaknesses and errors in Washington and Lincoln’s devotion, Kidd tells us not to worry (maybe even adding a pinch of “be happy”).

Evangelical history buffs spend a lot of time speculating about the personal faith of great historical figures such as Washington and Lincoln. This is an important topic, but there’s a sense in which, for historical purposes, it doesn’t really matter if these presidents were serious Christians. When you broaden the scope of the question, it is easy to demonstrate that religion was very important to both of them. Both endorsed a public role for religion in America, and Lincoln particularly employed religious rhetoric, and the words of the Bible itself, to the greatest effect of any political leader in American history. For Lincoln and Washington, a secularized public square was inconceivable.

So even if we won’t trust these presidents’ profession of faith, we should trust them on the importance of religion to public life. In fact, Kidd even believes that the presidents’ pro-religious views accounts for their political accomplishments.

So yes, I would love to know exactly what Washington and Lincoln believed personally about Jesus. But there’s no question that, in a public sense, faith mattered to them a great deal, and featured centrally in their concept of a thriving American nation. Their reverence for faith’s vital role in the republic helps account for Washington and Lincoln’s greatness.

This is another case where 2k would allow for sound historical and political judgment without having to contort the gospel in the process. After all, if Lincoln and Washington succeeded simply by being pro-faith, what reason would they have for trusting in Christ truly? Kidd does not consider that these presidents might have been less successful because an explicit embrace of Christianity and establishing policies in accord with such support would have violated the Constitution and alienated some voters (especially Roman Catholics who were not so willing to separate morality from theology). For a coalition dedicated to the gospel, it is an odd admission to suggest at TGC’s website that any religious affirmation less than the gospel will do. Not to mention that the kind of utilitarian and generic faith that Washington and Lincoln promoted makes it harder for the gospel to get a hearing since, again, things go as well with a generic Christian God and his morality as they do with an orthodox Christ and the good works that follow from faith.

At the same time, 2k would allow Kidd and his TGC editors to give as many thumbs as they have up to the first and sixteenth presidents — that is, of course, if you agree with the Federalists and Republicans. Since Washington and Lincoln were officers of the United States, the criteria for evaluating their presidencies should not be religious or quasi-religious but political. 2k allows a Christian to esteem Washington and Lincoln without having to run them through the grid of where they come down on the gospel, the deity of Christ, or how many times they invoke, in Washington’s less than orthodox phrasing, “the benign Parent of the human race.”

Is Christianity Reasonable?

You would think that religious historians would know better. Better in this case is understanding faith (of most varieties) to be fantastic since it involves truths and realities that cannot be seen and that divide rather than unite human beings. From this perspective, even the most orthodox of Christian affirmations look foolish and even irrational. Think of the Shorter Catechism’s answer number 22:

Christ, the Son of God, became man, by taking to himself a true body and a reasonable soul, being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost in the womb of the virgin Mary, and born of her, yet without sin.

Nothing in this answer is oddly Reformed, whether of the New or Old Life variety. It is an affirmation confessed by the church worldwide. And yet it is from an unbeliever’s perspective about as reputable a description of reality as the opening chapters of the Book of Mormon.

Why then would evangelical historian, Randall Stephens, and his co-author, Karl W. Giberson, single out Ken Ham (never heard of him), David Barton, and James Dobson for their “dangerous” anti-intellectualism? In a moldy New York Times op-ed column, then wrote (based on their new book, The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age):

THE Republican presidential field has become a showcase of evangelical anti-intellectualism. Herman Cain, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann deny that climate change is real and caused by humans. Mr. Perry and Mrs. Bachmann dismiss evolution as an unproven theory. The two candidates who espouse the greatest support for science, Mitt Romney and Jon M. Huntsman Jr., happen to be Mormons, a faith regarded with mistrust by many Christians.

The second word of the column might be an indication of the authors’ agenda and the Times‘ editors’ willingness to further it. The Republican field is not a great one and I too wish that evangelicals had not bet the parachurch ministry parking lot on one party. But are Republicans the only ones with goofy ideas? Has it occurred to these authors that Democrats like Barney Frank keeping watch over the federal agencies responsible for mortgage lending did far more damage to the country than David Barton’s notions about George Washington’s faith? And can we really single out the pastors of Republicans without mentioning the likes of Jeremiah Wright?

But our president’s associations with a provocateur minister do not prevent the authors from complimenting the right kind of faith expressions in the United States:

Americans have always trusted in God, and even today atheism is little more than a quiet voice on the margins. Faith, working calmly in the lives of Americans from George Washington to Barack Obama, has motivated some of America’s finest moments. But when the faith of so many Americans becomes an occasion to embrace discredited, ridiculous and even dangerous ideas, we must not be afraid to speak out, even if it means criticizing fellow Christians.

In which case, the other reason for bringing Barton, Ham, and Dobson to light in this way is to show a simple point: I am not an evangelical of the kind that these evangelicals are. Well, if that is the case, then why don’t we get rid of the word evangelical altogether? Sorry to be repetitious, but wouldn’t being Christian be a whole lot easier if you were not always lumped in with every other Protestant not in the National Council of Churches? Since Stephens and Giberson both have taught at Eastern Nazarene College, they might have made the useful point that they are Nazarenes, explained what these kind of Wesleyans believe, and faulted Barton, Ham, and Dobson for not being true to Nazarene teaching. But I don’t suspect the editors of the Times would have printed that. I’m betting Christianity Today wouldn’t either.

Some religious historians have wondered aloud about the propriety of these evangelical scholars turning on their own before the watching secular world. Baylor University historian, Thomas Kidd, objects that Stephens and Giberson have misrepresented academic evangelicals (who has supposedly integrated secular points of view into their w—- v—):

The editorial’s list of topics on which evangelicals have supposedly “rejected reason” is long and eclectic: evolution, homosexuality, religion and the Founding, and spanking children. On all these topics, evangelicals have not accepted the dominant academic position on the subject, and thus, the New York Times piece implies, have rejected reason. Surely many evangelicals would be open to a reasoned discussion on some or all of these topics, but they would need to feel that Stephens and Giberson appreciate that conservative Christians have logical justifications for believing what they do. Aren’t there serious reasons to believe in a literal reading of the “six days” of Genesis 1, or the historic teachings of most major religions on human sexuality, or even that the Bible’s mandates to spank your children (Proverbs 13:24 etc.) remain in effect?

John Fea from Messiah College agrees with Kidd:

Is The New York Times the best place for evangelicals to decry evangelical anti-intellectualism? Indeed, anti-intellectualism is a problem in the evangelical community. But I wonder, to quote Kidd, if the New York Times op-ed page is “the most promising way to start addressing that failuire?”

To be completely honest, I also wonder if a book published by Harvard University Press is going to have any impact on rank and file evangelicals. It seems to me that two kinds of people will read The Anointed: 1). Non-evangelicals who want ammunition to bash evangelical intellectual backwardness and 2). Evangelical intellectuals who already agree with Giberson and Stephens. I wonder if ordinary evangelicals–the folks who actually listen to Barton and Ham and Dobson–will read the book or even know that the book exists.

In the end, I agree with Kidd. The anti-intellectual problem in American evangelicalism needs to be addressed in our churches. It is going to require evangelical thinkers to engage congregations in a more purposeful way and give some serious thought to how their vocations as scholars might serve the church.

Meanwhile, University of Colorado historian, Paul Harvey surveys the evangelical backlash against the op-ed and takes it all lightheartedly:

My co-blogmeister and most excellent historian Randall Stephens and his co-author Karl Giberson have recently been called (among other things), wolves in sheep’s clothing, dangerous menaces to evangelicalism, and, best of all, unethical attack-dog researchers and writers — the later from famed ethicist Charles Colson, in a matchless self-parody of old-time fundamentalist fury. As John Turner noted here recently, after Randall and Karl’s book The Anointed, some have felt there is no hope left for America. (It bears mentioning that most of the above noted did not actually read the book but scanned, and that inaccurately, Randall and Karl’s New York Times editorial). As a writer for the always thoughtful and temperate National Review opined, “once left-wing values enter the evangelical bloodstream, there is almost no hope for America.”

You might have noticed that some of these initial reactions are an eensy-weensy bit overwrought.

And all along no one seems to notice that what Christians believe about the Trinity, Christ, salvation, human beings, sin, and the sacraments are from a secular perspective just as crazy as spanking children or an earth that began on November 1, 4004 BC. I wonder if the solution here is for religious historians to teach more about the faith than about faith’s implications for practical living (like politics and the environment), more about what Christians profess and less about how they vote. If that happened, then Christians and non-Christians might understand better how different Christianity is from a modern w— v— and in turn believers might try to preserve their uniqueness rather than trying to make everyone else — from politicians to newspaper editors — like them.

Bottom line: if Christianity truly were odd, and Christians were abnormal, we wouldn’t have to worry about evangelical Republicans running the country.