Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The Other "Denominational Politics"

Jeff Richard Young, a fellow North Texan, has published on his blog a thoughtful post questioning the propriety of having Dr. Condolezza Rice speak at this year's Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting. I got carried away with my own commenting, and it seemed to me that I had done enough work on my comments to post them here.

Thanks, brother, for stirring up the muses.

What caught my interest was not so much defending Dr. Rice (who seems to have a soft spot in her heart for the murder of innocent unborn babies), but the question of the proper level of interaction between the SBC and secular politics. Usually, when we speak of "denominational politics" we are speaking of internal denominational politics. Yet the convention has always participated in external secular politics as well. What can we say about this other "denominational politics"?

In the University of Chicago's online journal Sightings, the eminent Martin E. Marty has published (back in 1999) an article entitled "Concerns about Membership Decline in the Southern Baptist Convention" alleging (not as the main point of the article) that the Southern Baptist Convention, "which was once only lightly involved in politics, is now among the most politically active." Dr. Marty's suggestion would certainly resonate with the sentiments of some who commented on Bro. Young's blog entry, insinuating that the SBC has embarked upon some kind of an unhealthy, unprecedented alliance with the GOP that has short-circuited our historic aloofness from secular politics.

Let me try to put that notion aside once and for all by demonstrating a more realistic appraisal of the SBC's political history than that which Dr. Marty has offered. At the end, I will offer a conclusion that will probably shock and scandalize more than a few.

A comprehensive treatment of this topic would constitute a book, not a blog, so I'll just try to hit the highlights;

  1. The Southern Baptist Convention was born out of a secular political conflict. Does anyone recall a little thing called the Civil War (that's the War of Northern Agression for those of us from the South)? National political conflict over slavery was the proximate cause of the division between Baptists North and South.
  2. Throughout the nineteenth century, Baptist newspapers editorialized regularly on political subjects. As the best example of this, I recommend that one read J. R. Graves's Tennessee Baptist. From my own doctoral research, I can also suggest the Arkansas Baptist and Baptist Evangel from Arkansas.
  3. Although Baptists started from behind in the older states on the East coast, in frontier states that were dominated by Southern Baptists during their formative periods, the intermingling of state politics and denominational politics was pronounced. Again, my area of expertise is Arkansas, so I will offer David Orr and Silas Toncray as good examples from my home state. The most recent history of Arkansas Baptists, A System and Plan, demonstrates clearly a synthesis of secular and denominational politics that goes back to the earliest post-Louisiana-Purchase settlement of the state.
  4. During the New South Period (the turn of the twentieth-century), Southern Baptists displayed probably the tightest partnership of secular and religious politics in our history. In my dissertation I have argued that the Bogard Schism in Arkansas is nothing more than the injection of secular agrarian dissent into denominational politics. Consider the officers of the SBC elected in 1901: Gov. W. J. Northen (Democrat governor from Georgia) as President, Gov. A. H. Longino (Democrat governor from Mississippi) as 1st VP, and Gov. W. W. Heard (Democrat governor from Louisiana) as 2nd VP. Gov. James P. Eagle (Democrat governor of Arkansas) served two terms as SBC President immediately after Gov. Northen. By the way, Gov. Eagle was also the President of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention for twenty-one consecutive years. Eagle's church, Second Baptist Little Rock, publicly excommunicated agrarian upstart Gov. Jeff Davis during a political campaign.
  5. Southern Baptists were extremely politically active during the 1928 Presidential Campaign, mostly in opposition to Catholic, anti-Prohibition, New York Democrat candidate Al Smith. For example, Southern Seminary President E. Y. Mullins publicly campaigned against Smith.
  6. In 1957-58, Democratic Congressman Brooks Hays of Arkansas was the President of the Southern Baptist Convention.
  7. From 1845 through the 1970s, Southern Baptists were monolithically aligned with the Democratic Party. The 1928 election is a noteable exception, as is the election of John Kennedy. But barring extraordinary religious factors, Southern Baptists have toed the line for the Democratic Party.


Conclusion

I believe that the recent alignment of the Southern Baptist Convention with the GOP is one of the healthiest things that has happened to us in our history. The stranglehold that the Democratic Party held over the SBC for so long has collapsed because of Roe v. Wade. The resulting friendship with the GOP is something so startling that virtually nobody would have predicted it as recently as 1970. The SBC's connection with the GOP is not yet any sort of blind loyalty, but is issue-oriented and genuine. It has not yet come anywhere near the kinds of improprieties that we demonstrated during our marriage with the Democratic Party. By building closer ties with the GOP, Southern Baptists have proven that neither party had better take us for granted—that we will go where our convictions take us regardless of past history with a party. I think that is an extremely healthy thing.

This post has focused upon Southern Baptist alignment with various political parties. Next time I'll look at Baptist interaction with governing officials, regardless of party politics.

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