The nearly 16 million member Southern Baptist Convention, America’s largest Protestant church, has elected its first ever black president, Fred Luter. Justifiably the media have highlighted the historical irony of a church founded amid schism before the Civil War in defense of slavery that has now come full circle in its racial attitudes. But the larger context of Southern Baptist history and influence should also be appreciated.
What if Southern Baptists had become another liberal Mainline Protestant denomination? It perhaps almost happened. Many Southern Baptist seminaries liberalized in the 20th century, and Southern Baptist elites in the 1970’s were not always too different from Mainline elites. In 1971 the Southern Baptist Convention backed abortion rights, just a year after the United Methodists did. In 1973, Southern Baptist officials joined with United Methodists and other Mainliners to found the notorious Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights.
Unlike the Mainline denominations at this point, most Southern Baptist clergy remained conservative. And the laity were overwhelmingly conservative. In the late 1970’s Southern Baptist conservatives began their historic reclamation of the denomination, led by Judge Paul Pressler and theologian Paige Patterson. Critics and the media portrayed it as a “fundamentalist” coup. But it was actually a populist uprising against liberal elites. Pressler and Patterson, with their supporters, did not want their church to resemble what had happened to United Methodism.
Even today few appreciate the significance of the Southern Baptist conservative resurgence. Liberal Protestant elites in America throughout the 20th century assumed what resembled the Brezhnev Doctrine for the Soviet Union. Once a denomination was captured by modernism it could never revert to “fundamentalism,” or vigorous orthodoxy. But the Southern Baptist upheaval of the 1980’s and early 1990’s resembled somewhat the collapse of the old Soviet bloc, defying what historical determinists of the Left assumed was impossible.
The Southern Baptist conservative resurgence coincided with the wide rise of the Religious Right and of Reagan conservatism. Thanks partly to Southern Baptist conservatism, the states where it dominates remain the nation’s bedrock of opposition to unrestricted abortion rights, same-sex marriage, and secularist usurpations on religious liberty. Southern Baptist conservatives, with other evangelicals, were central to the coalition behind Reagan’s war of wills against communism which resulted in a relatively peaceful and successful conclusion to 45 years of Cold War. And Southern Baptists as a whole remain unashamed supporters of American exceptionalism. They also retain an historic American distrust of unbridled state power. Stereotypically, Southern Baptist are genetically combative and not embarrassed by the principles and virtues that so irritate liberal secular elites.
A young Southern Baptist, Jonathan Merritt, has recently published a widely reviewed polemic against the Religious Right broadly and against his own Southern Baptist Convention particularly. His generation is tired of the culture wars, he insists. No doubt some of his critique has truth. Almost everyone and everything looks bad under a scathing microscope. But he misses the larger picture. Had he grown up in a liberal Mainline denomination, devoid of young people, missing nearly all references to salvation and God’s holiness, preoccupied with political correctness, and ideologically almost indistinguishable from secular academia, he might have a different perspective. I certainly did growing up in an often struggling United Methodist congregation.
At United Methodism’s Virginia Annual Conference about 20 years ago, I vividly recall a delegate denouncing a resolution urging doctrinal fidelity as worrisomely resembling the battles of the Southern Baptist Convention. He failed to mention that the dreaded Southern Baptists, even amid their divisive battles, dispatched thousands of missionaries and gained millions of members, even as United Methodism suffered a 46 year continuous membership spiral. If only United Methodism had suffered the “problems” of the Southern Baptists!
The Southern Baptist Convention surged in membership for decades, surpassing Methodism as America’s largest Protestant body in the late 1960’s and outnumbering United Methodists by almost two to one not much more than 30 years later. Southern Baptists have been losing members for the last 5 years. Denominational loyalties, even among faithful church goers, are ebbing. Many mega churches, including Rick Warren’s huge Saddleback Church, which is Southern Baptist, don’t identify their denominational affiliation.
My guess and hope are that the Southern Baptist Convention, after its current brief stagnation, will rebound towards further growth. But whatever happens, America and The Church owe faithful Southern Baptists our gratitude for championing the Gospel when so many other denominations faltered.