Religion? Or Politics?

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?


  1. I’ve long wondered if the separation of religion and state is really even possible or sustainable. I can see how a state can accommodate a plurality of religions more than I can see a dominant religion accommodating other religions or an independent state. The latter seems to be where we are today.

    And Oh.My.God. If Jesus wasn’t woke then He either never existed or was just a farce.

  2. How is this Southern Baptist religion any different from radical terrorists in foreign lands? Are women going to be forced to give birth? Wear a burka? Wear a scarlet A on her clothing if she gets pregnant out of wedlock? Or gays! What about them? Lynched? Or are we going to return to enslaving people with brown or black skin? Tax the Freaking Churches, but I repeat myself.

  3. Sheila asks several interesting questions, but there seems to be one missing — a question about power, or in the world of religious zealots, control.

    As more global citizens wake up, the need for religions as guides for morals or ethics fades away. We don’t need religions or religious people to help shape our moral compass since we all have a conscience, except the sociopaths, and there are plenty of them in Washington.

    What does this do to a “believer whose identity (ego) is so enmeshed with his religion?”

    It creates loads of FEAR, FEAR, FEAR.

    Identity politics creates immense fear because your ego is attached to being an R or D or whatever. It’s the old, “I AM _____.”

    Can you imagine having your identity so centered on being white and being right? LOL

    They are watching and seeing more women and people of color in their world. More gays in their world. More independent Christians or those who prefer Jesus without the dogma. They see young people accept socialism and communism.

    Their world is shrinking, which causes an explosion of fears, and Trump is their savior.

    Talk about hitching your wagon to the wrong horse! LOL

  4. What we call evangelical “religion” proffers a horrible attempt at theology. The “gawd” of the evangelicals is big pie in the sky with a recipe know only and followed only by narrow minded bigots whose lives are so far known from creative, helpful spirituality, that the relationship between the two can’t be recognized.

  5. What need is there for religion if you have both science and empathy?

    I no longer need “God” to explain why the sun comes up in the morning, or why people die of diseases.

    I never needed a rule book to know that I didn’t want to do so somebody else what I didn’t want done to me.

    What other need does religion fulfill?

  6. “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?”

    “In the beginning…” did those long ago first authors of the Old Testament consider Abraham, Moses and themselves to be white? And later did the disciples of Christ when writing the New Testament consider Jesus, John the baptist and themselves to be white? The division today appears to me to be primarily race and the divisions within the religious and the political groups always gets down the “black and white” issue.

    As for this “increasingly multi-ethnic country” takes me back to the 2020 Census form I received which was unlike any other I have ever received and completed as required in my 84 years was interested only in race and ethnic background. After basic questions regarding myself and how many residents lived in my home the first question was “Are there any Hispanics living at this address?” and the second question was “Are there any additional Hispanics living at this address not listed in the previous question?” The following questions, regarding up to 10 persons living in my home, were only race and ethnic origin. While my comments may initially appear to be disconnected to the issue today; do you really question if the information, on which disbursement of tax dollars is based, was religious or political in nature?

    Religion has become political and politics have become religious; with the overriding control of “White Christian America” controlling Congress, the 2020 election results and the Pandemic anti-mask/anti-vaxxers the religious/political division within our government. Those I see unmasked in public are white; I don’t know their religion but I sure as hell know their politics.

  7. Secular society and theocracy cannot exist!

    Secular society is made up of many, and theocracy has to be based on one specific religious belief.

    So, when you have individuals of any particular religious group trying to impose those beliefs by force, and against the will of others in Secular a society, shows why there is Supposed to be a separation between church and state! Or as Benjamin Franklin said, build the wall between church and state. (Secularist form of government)

    That being said, modern religion and politics are not much different!

    I brought up the hope issue a couple of threads back, and also faith.

    Those who criticize faith, neglect to realize that, faith exists in every facet of life religious or secular.

    With an individual, faith is a personal feeling, while with religion, people of faith group together with the same beliefs. Now, how is that different from politics?

    So people who consider themselves atheistic or agnostic or whatever, still practice a form of religious belief in their politics! They believe that specific individuals can accomplish the goals that they have set by their personal belief sets and faith. See, not so different than religion!

    Interestingly, the basis of the word faith, comes from the Greek word “Pi’stis” which means faithfulness or fidelity.

    Now, a person can be faithful in every aspect of life, they can be faithful to their families, faithful to their spouses, faithful to their boss, faithful to to their religion, faithful in their conduct, faithful to superior authorities and the law!

    Hebrews 11:1
    Faith is the assured expectation of what is hoped for, the evident demonstration of realities that are not seen.

    So, is this quote from Hebrews any different from how we look at politics? In the United States we have a document that lays out the framework of government, and, we’ve come to expect the organizations of that government the functions of that government to work in a specific way. We have faith in that document, we have faith that government will function for everyone.

    But just as with the Bastardization and Factionalization of politics, so has religion been Bastardized and Factionalized.

    In our political system, there are political organizations, and in those organizations there are heretics! Dinos and Rinos! Those who have gone against Specific tenants of their political group, or, the political group has changed enough where certain individuals of that group will not go along, hence heretics.

    This isn’t so much different from when the dominant religious organizations were burning people at the stake for heresy, just like the figurative burning at the stake in our modern politics.

    We could get into the nuanced breakdown of specific beliefs and the how and whys of both religion and politics, but, I would venture to say that personal faith is a driver in both religion and politics.

    Now, whether that personal faith is correct or not, is another issue! What do the written documents faith is based on, both political and religious, say about conduct? That’s what I meant by Bastardization and Factionalization!

    In Romans 2:14, 15 we read: “For whenever people of the nations that do not have law do by nature the things of the law, these people, although not having law, are a law to themselves. They are the very ones who demonstrate the matter of the law to be written in their hearts, while their conscience is bearing witness with them and, between their own thoughts, they are being accused or even excused.”

    So I think that’s the same in religion or politics!

  8. Joann Green
    This Hispanuc or not bs started with G W Bush
    I had to declare that as my new ‘race’ back in the early 2000’s as a postal employee
    Separation of the ‘other’ by any means

  9. John, what did Jesus say about the LAW?

    Religion is man’s construct of God’s Rules. The first thing European conquerors did was send in the missionaries to convert the heathens to Christianity. Why were they so eager to have obedient Christians running around?

    You wrote, “Now, a person can be faithful in every aspect of life, they can be faithful to their families, faithful to their spouses, faithful to their boss, faithful to their religion, faithful in their conduct, faithful to superior authorities and the law!”

    Faithful sounds like obedient to me and oligarchs love obedient workers and citizens. 😉

  10. Raise your hand if you remember the SBC having any concerns about abortion before they learned that it gave them power in the Republican Party? So is it religion or is it politics? The answer is yes.

  11. Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car.

    “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” Anne Lamott.

    There is a long human history of political leaders wrapping themselves up in religion and vice versa to legitimize their place of at the top of the aristocracy, i.e., pharaohs, Constantine, Justinian, Henry VIII, etc. I am reminded of pictures of the Russian priests blessing the troops going off to war to fight in the WW 1.

    Up until 1945 the Japanese Emperor was the human embodiment of the divine.

    Our American bible thumper’s do not want to just bible thump among themselves – Conversion is the end goal or least political acquiescence and/or support of their zealotry.

  12. So are the “Rise of the Moors” a “religion” and must be allowed to carry around unlicensed arsenals of weapons and have no allegiance to a state or the US?

  13. I see their “insistence, on the supremacy of White Christian America,” as you put it in your question, as political. Is there anything written in their bible abut “White” folk, Christian, or not, having a hegemony on being something like “proper,” or “chosen?”
    “Our Lord isn’t woke.” So, what is “woke?” Is it not “awakened” to the reality on the ground? As, in, i.e.: “I awoke to see the sun not shining this morning, in central Florida?” Yes, mundane, but accurate.
    So, if their Lord is not “woke” does that mean that He/She is indeed not omniscient, omnipotent? Is their, or his, Lord blind to what is, or do they want their Lord to ONLY see, be aware of, what they want to see?
    And, of course, they “know” that homosexuality is an “abomination in the eyes of the lord.” But they don’t see that there is ample evidence that the bible presents John the Baptist, of all characters, as engaging in a bromance with another man, a stranger he met . I suggest reading “Evolution’s Rainbow, Diversity, Gender and Sexuality in Nature and People,” by Joan Roughgarden, to get a fuller sense of this situation. Cherry picking is such fun!

  14. Una Turley; the Hispanic “bs” began in this country many years ago, long before GW was a twinkle in GHW’s eye and many years before that. Trump just unleashed all racism as being permissible in this country and turned the problems of immigration at our southern border into our Public Enemy Number One. He considers all Hispanics, or Latinos as some prefer, as being Mexicans. GW can be blamed for some of our continuing problems but not the Hispanic issues we face today.

  15. OF COURSE the Baptists are all in a tizzy. They fear they are losing control of their women and the purse strings of the few remaining sheep still funding their phony nonsense.

    This piece from today’s blog really describes the cult of Baptist Christianity:
    ”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.”

    These are tenets of the cult known as Southern Baptists. I lived in Texas and saw this passion to control women, their thinking and their bodies first-hand. And the women dutifully submit to the B.S., because they are stoked with the fear Todd mentions by their ministers and community leaders.

    Is it any wonder that this cult would so easily bend the knee for a cult figure like Trump? No. It is, in fact, predictable. These hateful, bigoted hypocrites would rather embrace a crook, liar and woman hater over the preachings of their alleged savior. That pretty much defines what these fools are all about.

  16. The boundary between religion and government in this country has always been blurred as is evidenced by the fact that the POTUS is sworn in on the Bible. It is also my understanding that some of the founders were deists or transcendentalists.

    What Baptists do not understand is that they are out of step with millenials and the generation following them. Many of them march with African-Americans in the Black Lives Matter movement. Many of them support gay marriage. So, the number of people belonging to the SBC and other faith traditions are leaving. Jimmy Carter wrote a book years ago criticizing the SBC for its oppression of women and other issues as well.

    Religion in the past has helped people through different stages of life. That is why the Roman Catholic church has 7 sacraments. It is supposed to help us face transitions, impermanance, and our mortality with courage and dare I say, joy. It is supposed to help deepen our meaning and purpose in life. But once it gets wrapped up in politics, they flirt with the lust for power. If any of you want a good experience with very progressive Christianity listen to the priests on YouTube of the All Saints church in Pasadena,California. They translate some of the teachings of Jesus so that they are relevant to modernity. They support the LGBTplus community, latinos, African-Americans and other marginalized minorities. They are very engaged with social justice issues.

    Politics does not per se address our mortality nor the transitions we make through life. I would compare them more to philosphy than religion. I have heard members of Congress speak of how their faith influences their support or objection to certain government policies including progressive representatives.

    One woman on this site says ” My religion is kindness.” Karen Armstrong a historian of religion states there is credo which involves creeds and dogma, but then there is corda —what we surrender our hearts to. To me, what we surrender our hearts to is much more important than theology.

    Carl Sagan and Neil T-DeGrasse are obviously in love with astrophysics. Their eyes light up with joy when they speak of the universe, its wonders and mysteries. It makes me wonder if science is its own sort of religion.

    Thanks for raising this comparative discussion of religion and politics,Shiela. Now I close to go and love my neighbor another day regardless of his/her race, creed, ethnicity, sexual orientation etc. And yes, some of my neighbors are probably bigoted in some way. I shall treat them with love and respect anyway.

  17. As a former Roman Catholic, I remember when in the early 70’s my mom took us to Saturday evening mass and after the service the priest told my mom, the tailored pants suit she was wearing was inappropriate. I think that might be when my faith in organized religion started to erode. The Catholic church, still to this day, seems to embrace beliefs that work to exclude and divide people.

    But that said, I am not sure how anybody knowing the history of the Southern Baptist Convention could not wonder if there is not some fundamental flaw in the teachings of their church. The Southern Baptist Convention was created, like many other schisms in other religious groups, before the Civil War over the slavery question. After the civil war all of the other religious denominations reconciled, except for the Southern Baptist Convention.

    Monotonous Languor, thanks for your post.

  18. I see both religion and politics as authoritarian, but with this difference: Religion is imposed from the top down while political authority in a democracy (if theoretically) is imposed from the vote of the majority in a sort of “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Thus when some criticize religion it is regarded as heresy, even though they were uninvolved in the formation of the tenets of such authority, while those in a democracy who criticize democracy or its application to substantive issues of the day (again theoretically) are regarded as within their rights. I prefer the latter freedom to disagree to the former dictatorship of antiquity’s embrace of the Greek-honed invention of the soul.

    The SBC and other such doctrinally varying religions springing from our Judeo-Christian meshing of soul and civic conduct have recently added opposition to abortion and same sex marriage to their ancient views and made subject to eternal punishment for heresy, but these are issues of the day which were unknown when such tenets were being formed and are, in my opinion, political and not religious areas for priests, preachers and rabbis to use ultra vires to justify their invasion of the political sphere.

    One may agree or disagree that Moses came down from the mountain with directives from God or that a young revolutionary rabbi arose from the tomb after three days, but in that real world Rome, Herod and others were in charge of the issues of that day, which from what we know, did not include abortion or same sex marriage but did include the stoning of women who wore men’s clothes, a tenet which would have rough sledding in today’s world. Uh. . .

  19. “Religious beliefs–as opposed to religious rituals– are the specific tenets that members of a particular faith believe to be true.” As a non-fundamentalist Jew, I find this most interesting. Religious rituals are for me, a method of focusing my attention on spirituality, matters of the spirit, things that need to be thought about for the long haul, from before my lifetime to beyond it and also looking at my place in the community of the world. Even amongst Orthodox Jews, there’s a reason for the truism, “two Jews, three opinions.” Our rituals allow us the freedom of our beliefs, including our doubts. I wonder if this is why a majority of Jews (not all, but many) tend towards liberal and progressive viewpoints?

  20. Matthew 5:17
    “Do not think I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I came, not to destroy, but to fulfill”.

    Christ made his comment to the Sanhedrin.

    So referring to the law at the time, the law that Christ was under himself as a Jew, the Mosaic law covenant, he fulfilled the law covenant by keeping it perfectly! So Todd, you can say Christ was faithful to the law!

    Christ also told the Pharisees later on, the whole Law hangs on “love God and love your neighbor” and later on he also said to love your enemy! He was not happy that the leaders of the time, in the Jewish theocracy, purposefully changed the original meaning of the Mosaic law to hating your enemy which was not part of the law, and misapplying who their neighbors would be!

    Regardless, Christ was faithful to the law. He also respected the local authorities because they represented secular law. Back in earlier history, there really was no division between politics and religion! Kings were seen as God’s, and their governments reflected this! They were all a form of theocracy. It was the same in Europe, China, India, Greece, the Medes and Persians, the Egyptians, even the French and English!

    Christ actually refused to be appointed a king on earth, because he said, that his kingdom was not of this source. So he refused the authority and power of a king! That made him quite different from really anyone else in history.

    Of course the Christian religion changed after the death of the last apostle, and, Emperor Constantine of Rome using the Christian religion to consolidate his power by making it an official religion of the Empire. This took place in 325 A.D. at the Nicene Council. This was really the point of time when the Christian religion was changed from its original goals and edicts of Christ.

    As far as Faith, a person that is unfaithful, would be considered untrustworthy! Now person can be faithful and being evil, because that’s what they base their faith on, that’s their personal belief. Governments can be faithful in evil, it works both ways! We can see an example of this today, in the faith that the Trump followers have in him, or white nationalists have in their belief system.

    Having faith doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a good person, it means that your belief system is something that you stick to and believe in with your whole being, whatever that might be!

  21. Miriam – I find your description of your freedom of your belief, including your doubts, to be theologically attractive. My now deceased sister in law, Aviva, was born and raised in Tel Aviv, but never discussed such freedoms with me. Perhaps it was because she was an anomaly among the populace there, a Christian whose father was a missionary sent to Israel to Christianize the Jews, a task he was preordained to fail, and did. As to your guess as to why a majority of Jews tend toward liberal points of view in the world of the profane, I think it entirely possible that their freedom of religious points of view within their religion does in fact spill over into their liberal political views, views with which, parenthetically, I agree.

  22. Miriam and Gerald – with the majority of Jews in Israel being secular and the trends in the US mostly going in that direction…the future doesn’t look so hot for their political views. In fact, the faster growing part of US Judaism among youth is Orthodox, who voted for …guess who?

  23. I am reminded of a saying by a friend of mine long ago –
    “There is only one god – mine’s better”

    I am also reminded of the days of Usenet (posting sites in the old days) where a scholarly Jew quoted all sections of Jewish scripture, from Pentateuch to Midrash, all suggesting that Jews were supposed to be “liberal” – it was not without rebuttal, but his arguments seemed strong to me.

    Religion can coexist with secular society when it doesn’t try to impose itself. Persuasion is fine, but imposition is not. Can this happen, especially in these days of theologically based bigotry? I don’t know.

    I do remember days when no candidate listed “I am a Christian” as a qualification for office. I’ve known religious politicians of many faiths, but they never used to list it on their campaign literature.

  24. Noticeably, the googled definitions of religion and culture didn’t specify morality. Perhaps that’s why so many SBC delegates were Trump supporters, but apparently that turned off the convention’s slim majority. There’s hope for America.

  25. It is white identity politics that is the farce. The culture war is not white supremacy christians, its whether christians of any ethnic background view the Bible and its wisdoms to be valid in regards to what it teaches. Liberals want to put conservatives in a box as being white supremacists while many black pastors are waking up to the wokeness that is separate from their views. CRT is vital to the theory of of oppressors versus the victims in which anything that may have a rule, law or principle bearing against it is inherently oppressive. Indentity politics is useful in its world of disinformation by liberals that are embracing the new revolutionary tactic to radically indoctrinate even within the SBC. The error in the white population is to use or believe the use of identity politics has any use to classical liberalism, the error is that it pushes society into a divisive totalitarian view of western culture where no dialogue will be tolerated but seen in itself as a tool to keep whites in control.
    Black pastors are beginning to see the real threat to the black community as whites trying to socially engineer their existence. The help that the black community has received has destroyed the family, disempowered the black males role to where 60-70% of children dont have a father. White supremacy is on the march. Its not the western world where the content of the character is useful, but it is the divisiveness being taught and backed by every school, university, seminary.
    Bill Maher himself states that world of Islam teaches an ideology that if you leave it or publishes anything against it, the majority whether they believe in world jihad or not are likely believe to that one should be prosecuted or put to death. The error here is that classical liberalism not only gives this type of culture a pass, it is in the mindset of the sociologist slipping itself into a world where dialogue is no longer tolerated.
    The classical liberal whether in the seminary or in the secular university should see the value in the constitution and what it teaches. But right now classical liberalism is slipping away into an indoctrination of thought that the person because of their skin color is in error. Their is no redemption taught of Christ, no unity of the Amercan spirit through tolerance and love. Only a new approach to win by dividing through a totalitarian depression that no society, in this case a society spawned by western classical liberalism, can ever be tolerated

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