Almost two weeks after Jerry Vines’ inflammatory remarks about Islam, Southern Baptist Convention leaders are still scrambling to defend him.
Speaking at the pastors’ conference, Vines, former SBC president, condemned American pluralism and charged that the prophet Muhammad was “a demon-possessed pedophile.”
The Baptist Center for Ethics, centrist Baptist pastors and other Christians quickly criticized Vines’ statement. Jewish and Islamic leaders denounced his position. Two days in a row, the White House distanced the president from Vines’ religious intolerance. In a rare editorial, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution criticized Vines and said his statement lacked “a drop of love or charity.”
Vines’ remarks also began circulating through the Islamic world, surely complicating mission work and potentially compromising the safety of missionaries.
Rather than courageously offering a counterpoint to Vines or distancing themselves from his perspective, Southern Baptist fundamentalists made four types of defensive arguments.
First, they blamed the media. One agency head said the secular press “writes the leads,” implying that the problem is the press. The press focuses on minor comments, not major convention events, he said. A Baptist pastor suggested to a daily newspaper that Vines’ comments were taken out of context.
Blaming the media is a commonplace dodge that transcends religious ideology. It is certainly not a practice exclusive to fundamentalism. It is a standard practice for those who wish to avoid responsibility.
Second, fundamentalists attacked Vines’ critics with the charge that they were practicing “p.c.” A seminary president said Vines’ mistake was that he violated political correctness, the idea that no moral criticism may be offered about anything because everything is of equal value.
Accusing others of political correctness is one way some try to make room in the public square for their extremism. Fundamentalists say their views are not really twisted, just not tolerated in the larger culture. What Vines’ violated, however, was not political correctness but biblical ethics. Vines failed to practice love for neighbor, which demands that we treat everyone as a person of worth.
Third, fundamentalists defended Vines’ character. They said Vines is a “godly pastor,” “a dear friend,” “one of our most studious and careful pastor-scholars,” and a man of “genuine compassion.” One convention leader said Vines had “sincere and Christ-like motivations.”
Across the religious spectrum, ministers use the “good man” argument to insulate colleagues from criticism. This approach prioritizes character over competence. Incompetence is acceptable, if character is good. Of course, the issue here is not Vines’ character but his competency in light of such a foolish statement.
Fourth, fundamentalists defended Vines’ comment with the claim that his content was historically true. The new SBC president said Vines made “an accurate statement,” a point widely disputed by Muslims and Christians.
Nevertheless, this defensive argument holds that truthfulness justifies harmfulness. Thoughtful Christian leaders have long said that we need to speak truth with love. Many Christian parents have taught their children: “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” Vines’ defenders have confused an alleged accurate statement with authentic Christian speech.
Vines’ supporters are defending a morally indefensible sink hole surrounded by a host of Baptists who know better but refuse to speak out and lead their churches toward a constructive future.
From that perspective, a lot of us continue to enable speech that, if not outright hateful, certainly lacks a Christ-like spirit.
Robert Parham is BCE’s executive director.
Robert M. Parham (1953 – 2017) was the founder and executive director of Baptist Center for Ethics from 1991 to 2017. He served as executive editor of EthicsDaily.com, BCE’s website, from its launch in 2002 until 2017.