Thursday, January 18, 2007

Are Southern Baptists Evangelicals?

Great Man vs. Grassroots

Thomas Carlyle famously remarked, "The history of the world is but the biography of great men." The "great man" approach to analysis finds the greatest significance in the attributes, motivations, and achievements of the most prominent characters in a war, a philosophical school, a political campaign, or whatever.

I'm not a big fan of the "great man" methodology. I think it often fails to ask the proper questions about how this particular person rose to greatness. Often other people just as gifted, intelligent, articulate, passionate, or privileged never achieve greatness. I believe that trendsetting and conspicuous accomplishment often have less to do with the internal attributes of the person who is the "leader" and more to do with the attributes of the grassroots—of a broad swath of people. In other words, rather than asking "Why did this person lead as he did?" I think it is often more profitable to ask "Why did anyone follow him?" After all, at any given moment there are a rushing swarm of people who would fancy themselves leaders. The trick is convincing other people to come to that same conclusion.

One of my ambitions someday is to write a history of the Conservative Resurgence that makes virtually no mention of Dr. Patterson, Judge Pressler, Dr. Rogers, Dr. Vines, Dr. Criswell, etc.—to write a history of the Conservative Resurgence that explores the questions of why a groundswell of popular support arose behind these men and accomplished the unimaginable.

Perhaps a similar grassroots analysis of current happenings would also be valuable. Much speculation has occurred regarding the motives of Wade Burleson, Ben Cole, Dwight McKissic, as well as the motives of a whole host of people who agree with me, including myself. Such speculation and analysis is not so improper as some people suggest that it is. In some cases, there's some pretty clear support for the idea that personal factors play at least some role. Yet, even if there is a place for that kind of analysis, at some point one ought to ask what larger societal movements might be at work both to inspire the leadership of the various factions involved and to give traction to their labors.

In this post I hope to propose one possible candidate for the societal movement most causally related to our recent Southern Baptist fisticuffs: Evangelicalism.

What Is Evangelicalism?

If you've read this blog much at all, you know that I love to define things. Evangelicalism is a concept begging for such treatment, because the label Evangelical has meant so many different things during the past several centuries. In 1770 an "Evangelical Revival" was ongoing in the British Isles. As applied to that milieu, the phrase "Evangelical Revival" is probably a redundant one—"Evangelical" pretty much meant "Revivalistic" in its everyday use. At one point in the twentieth century, an Evangelical was basically a conservative who wished to distance himself from J.-Frank-Norris-style Fundamentalism. These days, the word receives as much attention as a (secular) political term than anything else.

Nevertheless, I suggest that, for the period from around 1970 through the present day, Evangelicalism is broadly conceivable as a primarily economic term. Evangelicalism is an industry containing Focus on the Family, Compassion International, Contemporary Christian Music, major Christian publishing houses, dating services like Equally Yoked, and myriad other business ventures. Larry Eskridge and Mark A. Noll's book More Money, More Ministry: Money and Evangelicals in Recent North American History shed much light on this phenomenon, I think.

As an economic market, Evangelicalism has done a lot of good. The variety of music, literature, film, and other media available to North American Christians is greater today than in days past largely because of Evangelicalism. For that I am thankful. Also, the likelihood of Christians obtaining justice for the unborn and others in our society is much greater because of the political influence that has come through the consolidation of Christian political influence under the banner of Evangelicalism.

Yet the cultivation of the Evangelical market has some interesting side effects, and for these I am less enthusiastic:
  1. It is in the interest of Evangelicalism to pretend that theological concepts that have been important for thousands of years are no longer important. Because no individual denominational market is big enough to sustain modern Evangelicalism, the movement must de-emphasize denominational distinctives. Yet, with a few notable exceptions, Christians have not tended to divide in the past over minutiae. The nature of salvation, baptism, the Lord's Supper, the Trinity, the church—Evangelicalism must relegate these things to relative unimportance in order for the market to coalesce. So, it emphasizes other things—things that are important themselves—to the exclusion of these "divisive" issues. The measure of a doctrine's importance becomes not its scriptural emphasis or theological gravity, but its ability to unite the core market. For example, consider the old argument that "new music" is not sufficiently "theological" vis-a-vis hymns. Actually, I find CCM to be quite theological (even more so as the movement continues to mature); however, it tends to emphasize different points of theology than hymnody—CCM is loathe to touch doctrinal issues that might alienate a constituency.
  2. Evangelicalism must necessarily emphasize para-church over church. Para-church structures are able to sidestep the doctrinal and denominational issues that linger in churches. Para-church entities tend to be more entrepreneurial and market-oriented than churches are.
  3. Evangelicalism therefore tends to make churches more para-church-ish. Ecclesiology is de-emphasized, as are denominational ties, while the church seeks to secure the benefits of full participation in the marketplace.
  4. Evangelicalism, the more market-oriented it becomes, emphasizes ontological pragmatism (that which is true, right, etc., is that which works best). Pragmatism is part-and-parcel of market-orientation.

Are Southern Baptists Evangelicals?

Dr. James Leo Garrett and Dr. E. Glenn Hinson jousted over this question in a scholarly tome. Hinson argued that Southern Baptists are Baptists, not Evangelicals. Garrett countered that Southern Baptists are Evangelicals, albeit Denominational Evangelicals. I do not doubt that Garrett's analysis was true at the time, but I wonder whether the synthesis of Denominational Evangelicalism can withstand the powerful conforming pressures exerted by the broader Evangelical marketplace. Will the Evangelical part allow the Denominational (Baptist) part to endure long?

One can see how those pressures are at work. The Evangelical media industry is far more formative upon many Southern Baptist leaders than are distinctively Southern Baptist voices. Evangelical conferences draw an increasing number of Southern Baptist disciples when compared to denominational venues. An increasing number of churches are hard at work to conceal their denominational ties while emphasizing their membership in the broader Evangelical mainstream. And who can blame them, since the very agencies of the Southern Baptist Convention itself are stripping Baptist out of their names willy-nilly in a frantic race to attach the Southern Baptist bureaucratic gullet onto the enormous Evangelical teat—the more meaningless the name, the better the cross-market appeal.

Are Southern Baptists Evangelicals? The answer is increasingly clear: yes! The question is, are Southern Baptists still Southern Baptist?

The Present Controversy

This is the one uniting theme of the current dissent movement in the SBC: Evangelicalism. All of the hot-button issues—Private Prayer Langauge, baptism, gender roles, planting of non-Baptist churches—are issues that differentiate Southern Baptists from the broader stream of Evangelicalism, not by putting Southern Baptists at odds with any of the core beliefs of Evangelicalism, but by specifying additional things that pertain peculiarly to Southern Baptists. The current call for Christian unity is not precisely a call for Christian unity; it is a call for Evangelical uniformity. For some, it is not enough that Southern Baptists be Evangelicals. The Southern Baptist Convention must be nothing more than Evangelical. I think this is why Dr. Yarnell's excellent "Baptist Renaissance" article was so odious to so many: Any recovery of Baptistness necessarily threatens lowest-common-denominator Evangelicalism.

Yet I wonder why all this hue-and-cry to make of the SBC another Evangelical clone entitity. Aren't there enough of those already? Can we honestly contend that there is no homeland for mere Evangelicals in the landscape of American Christianity? Is it so evil for Baptists, while offering benediction to those who hold different views and pursue different methodologies, to hope for at least one group of entities that is distinctively Baptist? And indeed, if the SBC were merely Evangelical, why on earth would anyone choose to work through it rather than through one of the other merely Evangelical options available?

Yet so long as Evangelicalism remains the most successful form of Christian capitalism at work in the United States, the influence of Evangelicalism upon the Southern Baptist grassroots is only likely to grow. No denomination can compete with that market. The only hope for Baptist belief is for our denominational institutions to create another forum outside the marketplace (seminaries, for example) and employ the biblical model of a more personal discipleship to offset the Evangelical domination of mass-media. The goal here is not segregation from Evangelicalism. I myself am a voracious consumer in the Evangelical economy. The goal is to find a way to uphold Garrett's synthesis—to exist denominationally within Evangelicalism.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That was a very interesting piece. As someone who was raised Southern Baptist, in a hispanic family, but then sent to catholic military school for 5 years, I find religion, denominations, and people interesting. That said, I remember a time when all you heard about was "born again christians" (I'm 39 by the way). All through the 70s and 80s. Then you didn't hear about it so much. The 90s went by, and near the end of the 90s, seemingly coinciding with the Republican reassertion of power in the house/senate, you started hearing about "evangelicals" in the news media. These days it's quite common to hear pundits asking "what will the Evangelical's stance be (on any particular issue or vote)". It made me stop on several occasions and ask "what the heck are evangelicals, and why didn't I hear about them in the early 90s, or throughout the 80s and 70s?" Your article went along way in explaining things, and has filled a lot of gaps for me. Thank you.