Uneasy in Babylon: Southern Baptist Conservatives and American Cultureby Barry Hankins
The first book-length interpretation of the new conservative leaders of America's largest Protestant denomination.
Uneasy in Babylon is based on extensive interviews with the most important Southern Baptist conservatives who have assumed control of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Known to many Americans from their appearances on national TV/i>/b>
The first book-length interpretation of the new conservative leaders of America's largest Protestant denomination.
Uneasy in Babylon is based on extensive interviews with the most important Southern Baptist conservatives who have assumed control of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Known to many Americans from their appearances on national TV talk shows, such as Larry King Live and Fox News, they advocate a return to traditional values throughout the country. Hankins shows how differing cultural perceptions help explain the great chasm that developed between fundamentalists in the SBC and the moderates who preceded them as leaders of the denomination.
"Those who wish to understand the rift in the SBC in recent decades will find Hankin's book a fair and first-rate account."--Douglas Carl Abrams, Georgia Historical Quarterly
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Uneasy in Babylon
Southern Baptist Conservatives and American Culture
By Barry Hankins
The University of Alabama PressCopyright © 2002 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
Moving off the Plantation
Southern Baptist Conservatives become American Evangelicals
Throughout most of the twentieth century, moderate Southern Baptists who controlled the Southern Baptist Convention cared much less about challenging and critiquing their culture than did progressives on the left wing of the denomination or conservatives on the right. While most moderates were comfortable within southern culture, progressives pestered them on issues of race, peace and justice, and women in ministry. Certainly, many moderates agreed with the basic principles of the progressives, but as a group the moderates were dedicated to the maintenance of a smoothly functioning denomination that measured its success in terms of conversions, baptisms, and numbers of missionaries in the field. On the right wing of the denomination, there developed a group of conservative leaders who, like the progressives, had a socio-political program for reforming American culture. While disagreeing on almost all social and political issues, progressives and conservatives had more in common with each other than either had with the moderates. Both the right and the left of the SBC were more interested in advancing principle, even at the risk of disrupting the denomination, but both were held on the margins of SBC life until the 1980s by the moderates at the center. In addition to their disagreements on theology and politics, the primary difference between the progressives and conservatives was that the latter decided it was not enough to exist on the fringes. Instead, the conservatives decided to take over the denomination and become its new insiders.
Southern Baptist conservatives might well have come to their cultural views on their own by simply observing and responding to cultural change, but it actually did not happen that simply. Rather, the most influential shapers of conservative opinion in the denomination had help from northern evangelicals in developing their views, and some also had experiences outside the South in their pre- or early-adult years that alerted them to the secularizing tendencies rife in American culture. This exposure to nonsouthern culture and to evangelicals who were interpreting that culture shaped conservatives in powerful ways.
SBC MODERATES AND EVANGELICALS
The question of relationship between evangelicals and Southern Baptists has garnered the attention of several scholars. Two books emerged in the 1980s addressing this issue. The first was Are Southern Baptists "Evangelicals"? It took the form of a debate between Southern Baptist theologian James Leo Garrett and Southern Baptist historian Glenn Hinson, with James Tull weighing in as a moderator of sorts. Garrett, of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, argues the affirmative case. He begins cautiously with a discussion of the possible reasons that Southern Baptists have not thought of themselves as evangelicals. First, Southern Baptists did not want to be identified with fundamentalism during the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the early twentieth century. Second, Southern Baptists exhibit a strong denominational independence that does not allow for very much interdenominational affiliation. Third, Southern Baptists have always preferred the terms "conservative," "evangelistic," and "missionary" to "evangelical." The second point seems most critical. Garrett believes that early in the twentieth century, the Southern Baptist Convention, while supportive of some ad hoc interdenominational activity, was already deeply separatist. This was partly a result of the Landmark movement that peaked in the 1890s and taught that only Baptist churches were true churches. In addition to this, Garrett argues, Southern Baptists in the early part of the twentieth century still had rather vivid memories of persecution at the hands of the denominations usually called evangelical. When one considers also that these other denominations were usually pedobaptistic (that is, they baptized infants), it is understandable why Southern Baptists were wary of pursuing common causes with them.
Hinson employs these same facts to argue that Southern Baptists are not evangelicals, but Garrett merely acknowledges the basis for the question as he prepares to argue that they are. After carefully examining what evangelicals have been historically, Garrett concludes that while Southern Baptists may not be considered part of a common movement of evangelicals, there is really no other place for them on the theological spectrum. Therefore, Southern Baptists are "denominational evangelicals," by which he means that they were theologically but not institutionally part of a broad movement of Christians who share beliefs in the authority of Scripture, a life-transforming encounter with a risen Christ, and a strong missionary impulse. These three identifiers are often used as a way of defining evangelicals broadly.
Hinson, who was at the time of publication of Are Southern Baptists Evangelicals? on the faculty of Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, counters Garrett's argument, working vigorously to show that Southern Baptists are not "denominational" or any other kind of evangelicals. Hinson claims that arguing the negative on this question is a painful experience for him because he has endeavored throughout his distinguished career as a church historian and theologian to move Southern Baptists toward ecumenical relationships. He goes so far as to suggest that few in SBC circles "come closer in meriting the title 'ecumaniac' than I." Admittedly, Hinson's vigor in differentiating Southern Baptists from evangelicals stems in large part from the fact that the two groups are so similar. He states that evangelicals are "dangerous" to Southern Baptist distinctiveness because "[t]hey are too much like us in too many ways, or, conversely, we are too like them in too many ways."
Just who were these "dangerous" evangelicals that Hinson fears? He cited three ways in which the term "evangelical" has been used historically: (1) as a synonym for Lutherans, (2) to designate Protestants who emphasize personal conversion or heart religion, and (3) as a name for Protestants who are preoccupied with orthodoxy. Since the third group has laid special claim to the term, he chooses to focus on it. Hinson is here limiting "evangelical" to those who want to fight about theology. To the extent that theological fights have often led to the formation of creeds, he views evangelicalism as a threat to the Baptist emphasis on voluntarism in religion. Hinson here emphasizes the strong moderate Southern Baptist disdain for creedalism. Many moderates, while accepting confessions of faith geared toward defining what Baptists do believe, are wary of creeds used to articulate what a person must believe. One of the historic rallying cries for Baptists has been "no creed but the Bible." Hinson uses an analogy to press the importance of maintaining a distinction between evangelicals and Southern Baptists: the Christian faith is like an electrical conduit containing many wires insulated from one another. He wants to be sure that the Southern Baptist wire, with its emphasis on voluntarism and liberty, is well insulated from the evangelical wire containing its creedal concern for orthodoxy.
Hinson's antagonism toward evangelicals is not some sort of personal idiosyncrasy. It is shared by other Southern Baptist moderates, dating from before the Southern Baptist controversy erupted in 1979. Perhaps the most belligerent example of Southern Baptist reluctance to be classed as evangelicals came from Foy Valentine of the SBC Christian Life Commission during the 1976 presidential campaign. With references to Jimmy Carter's Southern Baptist evangelicalism swirling everywhere, Valentine groused to Newsweek magazine: "Southern Baptists are not evangelicals. That's a Yankee word. They want to claim us because we are big and successful and growing every year. But we have our own traditions, our own hymns, and more students in our seminaries than they have in all theirs put together. We don't share their politics or their fussy fundamentalism, and we don't want to get involved in their theological witch-hunts."
More recently, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary historian Leon McBeth has exhibited the inability of many Southern Baptist moderates to shake the negative image of evangelicals. He told a joint conference of Southern Baptists and northern evangelicals, "If you are a narrow, 'card-carrying,' militant, antidenomination, antiecclesiastical, organized evangelical, then leave me alone." McBeth here failed to distinguish between evangelicals and fundamentalists, and even among fundamentalists, not all would fit his description. The most famous Southern Baptist fundamentalist, J. Frank Norris, however, would, and McBeth admitted that Norris is what many Southern Baptists would have in mind when they think of either fundamentalism or evangelicalism. Norris was pastor of First Baptist Church, Fort Worth, Texas, from 1909 to 1952. He was an often-belligerent and militant critic of the SBC as he attempted to import northern fundamentalism into the denomination. In addition to his frequent attacks on Southern Baptist leaders and institutions, Norris was also tried for murder after shooting and killing a man in his own church office. Assuming that Norris was typical of fundamentalists, McBeth's statement also misconstrued historian George Marsden's term "card-carrying evangelical." McBeth seemed to think that a "card-carrying evangelical" is someone who is more militant than a regular evangelical. Marsden, however, employs this term to designate those who think of themselves as evangelicals first and members of a particular denomination second. While Marsden allows that those who have a "directly fundamentalist background" often exhibit the strongest identification with evangelicalism, the "card-carrying" label has nothing to do with how militant one is. Nevertheless, the negative view of evangelicals held by Valentine, McBeth, Hinson, and other moderates is fostered by Marsden's references to neoevangelicals since 1950 as the "heirs of fundamentalism."
McBeth rightly classified himself outside the "card-carrying" group even if for the wrong reasons. In reflecting on his own upbringing as a Southern Baptist, he wrote, "Not one of my family, friends, Sunday School teachers, or pastors ever mentioned the word [evangelical], much less claimed to be one." For McBeth, and nearly all in his denomination, being Christian and Southern Baptist were quite enough. There was no need to designate oneself as anything else. Evangelicals were some other kind of Christians who had their own concerns. This feeling of differentiation between Southern Baptists and evangelicals was heightened considerably by the SBC controversy of the 1980s. Both McBeth and Hinson came under heavy attack from the conservatives, the wing of the denomination most willing to make common cause with northern evangelicals and fundamentalists. In the existential reality of the controversy, it is perhaps understandable that these two scholars came to view evangelicals as not only different from Southern Baptists but as a threat as well.
The year after Are Southern Baptists Evangelicals? appeared, Leonard I. Sweet, in a footnote in a book by the publisher (Mercer) of Garrett, Hinson, and Tull's volume, writes that the Garrett-Hinson debate was "[o]ne of the stranger exchanges about whether a denomination is 'evangelical.'" Sweet does not say why he views the book as strange, but one can speculate that it is because the question in the title is of such importance to Southern Baptists that one of their presses would devote an entire book to it. A non–Southern Baptist might well respond to such a book by asking, "who cares?" Even more likely, Sweet may have thought the book strange because, outside the Southern Baptist Convention, there is no debate over whether or not Southern Baptists are evangelicals. It has been universally accepted that they are.
Deep into the identity crisis that the Southern Baptist controversy became, however, members wrangled over their relationship to evangelicals; so much so that in 1993 Broadman-Holman published a continuation of this debate, Southern Baptists and Evangelicals: The Conversation Continues, an edited volume that emanated from the conference at which McBeth uttered his evangelical disclaimer. This time, eleven Southern Baptists weighed in on the discussion, and six non–Southern Baptists entered the fray as well. While a review of all the many positions represented cannot be undertaken here, this book was unable to securely establish the place of Southern Baptists within American Protestantism. There seemed to be a growing sense, however, that Southern Baptists are evangelicals, but different.
There have been several attempts to identify just how Southern Baptists are different and to explain why the moderates who controlled the denomination for so long never aligned completely with the broader evangelical world. One standard explanation is that the SBC was a full-service denomination needing no alliances. By contrast, northern evangelicalism is a para-church movement out of necessity. No evangelical denomination in the North has the resources necessary to meet all the needs of the many such churches and individuals. This being the case, there are interdenominational publishing houses, missionary agencies, colleges, periodicals, and even churches in that region. Joel Carpenter has called this phenomenon the "evangelical united front," while George Marsden has likened it to a feudal kingdom and Timothy Smith a mosaic. By contrast, Southern Baptists constructed a massive empire that has services and materials for everything. By the 1970s the denomination's Baptist Sunday School Board was the largest publisher of religious literature in the world, and the SBC Foreign Mission Board sent out more missionaries than any other denomination. Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary was the largest in the world, and there were five other SBC seminaries with enrollments that dwarfed the schools of most other denominations. There were also more than forty-five SBC colleges and universities and a handful of secondary schools. Retreat centers and camps abounded across the South, while denominational agencies occupied offices in downtown Nashville, addressing everything from home and foreign missions to political action. Moderates simply felt little need to align with what were by comparison fledgling enterprises in the northern evangelical world. Indeed, when the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) was formed in 1942 in St. Louis, two prominent Southern Baptists attended the organizational meetings, but the SBC declined affiliation. As one of the Southern Baptists present at the St. Louis meeting put it, the denomination already had the basic values of the NAE and "need not further organizational set-up to possess them."
Another reason often argued for why SBC moderates did not align with northern evangelicals, the belief that the two groups were just fundamentally different theologically, is somewhat less plausible. Many conservatives favor this interpretation, believing that moderates, for the most part, are not traditional enough to qualify as evangelicals. Ironically, as Hinson and McBeth show, many moderates, knowing little about the variety of northern evangelicalism, also accepted this interpretation. Especially after conservatives began to reach out to other inerrantist northerners, moderates took the view that the friends of our enemies are indeed our enemies. In reality, the diversity of both SBC moderates and northern evangelicals meant that, with little effort, most in either camp could have found counterparts in the other had they bothered to do so.
Excerpted from Uneasy in Babylon by Barry Hankins. Copyright © 2002 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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Meet the Author
Barry Hankins is Associate Professor of History and Church-State Studies at Baylor University.
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