Last week’s Southern Baptist Convention ensures that Southern Baptists will become known as the “ugly Americans” around the world.
The SBC elected a new president who is widely known for his allegiance to an American general who framed the war on terror as a Christian crusade. On the same day, the SBC also withdrew from the Baptist World Alliance, the largest and most respected Baptist body known for its advocacy of human rights.
The first action places the SBC on the side of the theocrats in their holy war against Muslims. The second action signals the SBC’s indifference to the Baptist bodies fighting for human rights in their countries. Both actions will poison the well for Southern Baptists abroad.
As the child of Southern Baptist missionaries, raised in Nigeria at the end of the colonial era, I remember too well the truthful, albeit painful, message in the movie “The Ugly American.”
Based on a 1958 novel, the movie, starring Marlon Brando, was about American arrogance and incompetence in a Southeast Asian nation in conflict. The movie became a metaphor for American involvement in the Third World.
While the symbolism of the “ugly American” stuck to many U.S. government and corporate officials, it never affixed itself firmly to the Baptist missionaries in Nigeria, who did medical work, built schools, started churches and did some agricultural training. Or at least, that was my childhood perception.
We were the good Americans. We observed the 4th of July. We sang the national anthem.
For my birthday in the second grade boarding school, my mother made a cake decorated with red, white and blue icing resembling the American flag. We were proud to be Americans.
We also sang the Nigerian national anthem. We saw first-hand the arrogance and ignorance of American officials. When on furlough in the United States, we always eagerly anticipated “going home,” back to Nigeria. In many ways, we were white Nigerians.
At some intrinsic depth, we knew that Americanism and Christianity were not synonymous.
That essential moral discernment has evaporated among SBC leaders. For them right-wing politics and fundamentalist Christianity are synonymous. Missiles and missionaries go together.
While SBC fundamentalists despise public schools, hate Disney and loath most of American culture, they hold an idolatrous reverence for the U.S. military as an office of evangelical Christianity.
The newly elected SBC president, Bobby Welch, is a frightening case-in-point. He came to the swift defense last year of Lt. Gen. William Boykin, who said that enemies like Osama bin Laden “will only be defeated if we come against them in the name of Jesus.”
Dressed in his military uniform, Boykin told an Oregon church that Muslims hate Americans “because we’re a Christian nation.”
In January 2002 at a LifeWay Christian Resources event at Welch’s church, Welch introduced Boykin as “a strong, dynamic Christian man who loves the Lord.”
Appearing again in his uniform, Boykin told Southern Baptists that the war on terror “will be won on our knees.”
Later that year, Welch invited Southern Baptist pastors to Fort Bragg for a two-day FAITH event with Boykin. Welch wrote that the meeting was a “once in a lifetime opportunity to join a group of warriors.”
Welch promised attendees, “You will go with General Boykin and Green Beret instructors to places where no civilians and few soldiers ever go.”
After Boykin was criticized for framing the war as a religious war, Welch called Boykin’s critics “back-stabbers” in an October 2003 Baptist Press column.
“I despise the unthinkable and asinine fact that some take cheap backstabbing shots at a real God-fearing American hero,” Welch wrote.
Asked a few weeks ago about the revelations of Boykin’s involvement in the Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal, Welch called Boykin “an unbelievable patriot.”
When the president of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination is joined at the hip with a general who sees conflict with the Muslim and Arab world as a Christian crusade, guilt by association is the inevitable result for Southern Baptists around the world.
Making matters worse on the same day, the SBC withdrew from the BWA, based initially on false charges that BWA is anti-American.
When Paige Patterson delivered the recommendation for the SBC to leave the BWA, he insulted Baptists around the world with another despicable charge, which had never been aired against the BWA. He accused the BWA of being pro-gay.
Patterson’s false witness will ensure an inhospitable reception for the SBC within Baptist unions and conventions around the world, where the SBC’s International Mission Board already has shaky relationships in many countries because of its bullying.
One BWA staff member said after the vote, “The BWA has far better relationships with Baptist people around the world than the IMB.”
As word spreads about the Welch-Boykin axis and Patterson’s smear against the BWA, Southern Baptists will be seen increasingly as “ugly Americans,” those who are arrogant, dishonest and militaristic.
It’s one of the saddest days in 25 years of conflict.
Robert Parham is BCE’s executive director.