I’m fascinated by an emerging trend of disillusionment with the religious right and a willingness of some conservative Baptists to buck the denominational pontificate and speak for themselves.
Regarding disillusionment with the religious right, I still find it amazing that anyone could have ever bought its illusion to begin with. But millions did, swallowing the line that America’s future freedom depends on electing officials who are indebted to Christian fundamentalists. A growing number of former fans have distanced themselves from the political movement, recognizing that its religious guise was a calculated farce for some leaders and an ego trip for others, with a few inhabiting the Twilight Zone of self deception.
Rob Boston’s “Theocracy Rejected: Former Christian Right Leaders ‘Fess up,” like other similar articles, makes fascinating reading, and shows how one-time superstars like Frank Shaeffer, John Whitehead, and Cal Thomas have recognized and rejected the hollow hubris upon which the religious right was based.
Meanwhile, some Southern Baptists have shown a willingness not only to admit that global warming is real, but to stand up to the denominational titans who have sought to squelch any statements that wouldn’t pass muster with the Republican Party. Jonathan Merritt, a student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and son of former SBC president James Merritt, has managed to grab all sorts of headlines by speaking up for the environment, including a report by Time Magazine on “The Greening of the Baptists.”
Showing a little hubris of his own, Merritt called his proposal “A Southern Baptist Declaration on the Environment and Climate Change,” and garnered the signatures of 44 Southern Baptists of varying prominence. Signers who would be widely known included current SBC president Frank Page, former presidents Jack Graham and James Merritt, and educators such as SEBTS president Danny Akin, Beeson Divinity School dean Timothy George, former Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary president Ken Hemphill, and Union University president David Dockery.
Conspicuously absent was current SWBTS president Paige Patterson, and curiously absent was the name of Malcolm Yarnell, a professor at SWBTS, which initially appeared on the statement but was later removed from the signatory page at creationcare.org.
Another notable absentee is Richard Land, head of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Land issued a statement of his own begging off any responsibility for stating his own view, claiming that his job is only to express “the consensus of Southern Baptists on public policy matters as determined by the SBC meeting in session each year.” Last year, the SBC passed a watered down resolution on the environment that cast doubt on whether climate change is real.
Land’s response is particularly interesting, since being limited to “the consensus of Southern Baptists on public policy matters as determined by the SBC meeting in session each year” has never stopped him from expressing any number of opinions on Larry King Live and other TV and radio outlets.
Does the split response over the environmental statement suggest a potential divide in Southern Baptist ranks, as some have suggested? There are divisions, certainly, and bound to be more, though the next great Southern Baptist divide will more likely be over Calvinism than climate change.
Whether it’s the machinery of the religious right or the power-brokers of the SBC, any group that contains so many people who are so dead certain of themselves can only cover the cracks for so long.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.