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Converting the Baptists

If nothing else, Southern Baptists believe in conversion. The potential for individual change – to new ways thinking and new beliefs – is the bedrock of evangelicalism. These Baptists have just elected their first African American president, Rev. Fred Luter of New Orleans, and observers have to wonder to what extent the denomination has been converted.

The 167-year-old Southern Baptist Convention formed on a racist platform in 1845, splitting from their Northern brethren over the issue of slave ownership. May the Confederate generals and all the Klan-robed Baptist preachers of the 19th and 20th (and even 21st?) centuries roll over in their graves. Not to mention the still-living, prominent Southern Baptist leader Richard Land, who just last month called racism “a myth” and had to be reprimanded by the denomination. He had led the Convention’s Ethics (!) and Religious Liberty Commission.

Cynicism about the Southern Baptist election is easy, and I’ll freely admit to it. During my 20-plus years coming of age in almost a dozen Southern Baptist churches, North and South, members of my churches included exactly one young boy and his grandmother who were African American. Apparently the Convention has been diversifying since I left nearly 30 years ago. Now reports claim 20% nonwhite members, an increase from 5% in 1990 (according to The New York Times), and – as I know from personal experience – even fewer in the years before that.

In the lily white churches of my childhood, the races were as firmly separated on Sunday mornings as were church and state. Stained glass windows and Sunday School flannel graph illustration boards showed Jesus with blond hair and blue eyes, and multitudes of Caucasian children gathered around him. Through all the social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s, I never heard anyone preach in favor of civil rights or against segregation. No one even used code words like “welfare queen” in order to oppose social service programs. They had no reason to do so.  The churches had Crisis Closets for our own members who needed temporary supplies of furnishings or clothes. Very occasionally we kids heard praise for a church member who had served a meal at a soup kitchen. Helping others outside the fold – except, of course, to evangelize them – simply wasn’t on our radar, and neither was politics. “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s,” and then be done with government. After Reagan Democrats solidified the South for the Republicans, evangelical conservatives have been working to break down the very separation of church and state that they historically supported, on which the country was founded, and that is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.

I’m sure the Southern Baptists feel good about electing Luter. From accounts I’ve read, he sounds like a passionate preacher who is committed to the very best manifestations of his beliefs. That’s great news. What’s troubling about the Convention’s wild enthusiasm for him, though, is that the ancestors of these white Baptists were the ones who used the same beliefs and biblical interpretations to justify slavery and the Lost Cause. After the shock of losing the Civil War, they claimed those beliefs justified segregation, lynching, and opposition to civil rights and interracial marriage. Today, politicized Baptist leaders and politicians oppose Head Start, universal health care, and public education, to name only a few issues that prominently touch on the continued disparities of opportunity that are the results of slavery, segregation, and white privilege. Until the Southern Baptists recognize the damage done by the causes they once embraced, Luter’s election is in danger of becoming a nice bit of feel-good symbolism that does nothing to change the poisonous legacies they helped create and often still help perpetuate. If they want to repudiate their history, they first need to remember it, take responsibility for it, and change the way they vote in elections other than just their own.

© 2012 Stephanie Harp. All rights reserved.

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