The phrase “culture wars” usually brings to mind the current political polarization between self-described conservatives and the rest of us: more and more, that’s a line of demarcation that runs between Republicans and Democrats (and Democratic-leaning Independents). However, as a recent essay from the Guardian points out, cultural issues are also creating huge tensions within the more fundamentalist religious denominations.
Barry Hankins is a professor at Baylor who has authored several books and articles about the Southern Baptist Convention, and in the linked article, he examines the effects of the culture wars on that Evangelical denomination.
He begins with a question:
Is the Southern Baptist Convention – the largest and arguably most powerful Protestant denomination in the United States – being held together by culture wars instead of Biblical teaching? That is the question in recent weeks, as thousands of Southern Baptists gathered in Nashville for their annual meeting to determine the bitterly contested future of the convention.
Many conservative members of the denomination seem to have seen in Donald Trump’s populist authoritarianism a last-gasp chance to save white Christian America – theology, and, for Trump, Christian morality, be damned.
Hankins has been a longtime scholar of the Southern Baptists, although he is not himself a member of that denomination, and he says that in the past he has defended what he terms their “serious theology,” despite the influence of cultural concerns on that theology. But by 2020, he says he had come to recognize that “conservatives of the right wing of the SBC were not just subordinating theology to the cultural concerns of white Christian identity politics, but had in fact lost their way as Baptists.”
At the SBC’s recent meeting–widely covered by the national press–we casual readers were relieved when the less political, less strident candidate, Litton, won the presidency of that body. But he won by a very narrow margin, suggesting that control by those Southern Baptists who want a less partisan voice–and independence from identity with the Republican Party–is tenuous.
Hankins points to the narrowness of the vote as a sign that the Convention has not “turned a corner.” And he insists that the differences are not theological. (Both sides are anti-gay, anti-abortion, pro-submission of women. The list goes on…) The debate, he says, is political.
The side that lost last week, wants to be more political, more explicitly aligned with the Trump-era Republican party, and aggressively prosecute the culture wars. They are motivated, I believe, by an inordinate fear of being out of step with the Republican party’s brand of white identity politics – and its de facto leader, Trump. They believe white Christian America is embattled and surrounded by a hostile secular-liberal culture. Their only chance of survival, they believe, is to stay aligned with the Republican party against a radical left that threatens the Christian faith’s very existence in America and whose ideologies are seeping into the SBC, as Mike Stone charges. As he said as he geared up for his run at the SBC presidency: “Our Lord isn’t woke.”
There’s more in the linked essay, and it’s fascinating, but aside from the specifics–doctrinal or cultural– the description of this denomination’s internal conflict raises a fairly profound issue: how does religion differ from political ideology–if, indeed, it does?
I did a bit of Googling, and came up with the following definitions.
Religion is an organized and integrated set of beliefs, behaviors, and norms centered on basic social needs and values. Religious beliefs–as opposed to religious rituals– are the specific tenets that members of a particular faith believe to be true.
A political ideology–as opposed to the messy realities of campaigning and/or governing– is a set of “ethical ideals, principles, doctrines, myths or symbols of a social movement” that explains how society should work and offers a political and cultural blueprint for a certain social order.
At the very least, there is considerable overlap.
The question for an increasingly multi-ethnic country that is legally and constitutionally prohibited from favoring one religion over others (or religion over non-religion or vice-versa) is: how do you decide what is genuinely religious and thus worthy of the governmental deference required by the Free Exercise Clause, and what is really a thinly-masked political campaign to protect a formerly privileged tribe?
Is the Southern Baptist insistence on the supremacy of White Christian America religious–or is it political? And even if religious, does it really deserve deference?