First published on Christian Converser
The Southern Baptist Convention is facing substantial backlash after six white seminary presidents met and issued a resolution denouncing Critical Race Theory, a “theoretical social sciences framework that examines society and culture as they relate to categorisations of race, law and power” (Wikipedia definition). CRT is something of a red flag to political conservatives, and on September 22, 2020, Donald Trump issued a lengthy Executive Order denouncing CRT and related concepts like “white privilege” as “offensive and anti-American race and sex stereotyping and scapegoating”. The biggest problem for the SBC is that it has become a highly politicised institution, with some of its key leaders joining the conservative evangelical bandwagon of aligning themselves to the Republican Party and their current POTUS. This implies strongly that the issue of CRT is less about its content (whether that is scripturally aligned or opposed) and more about the SBC wanting to continue ingratiating itself with conservative politicians. This perfectly illustrates the dilemma that the almost uniquely American approach of campaigning for political change through alliances to major parties has created, and it serves as an object lesson to the rest of the world. SBC is being torn in two directions: one in favour of a conservative network which opposes CRT, intersectionality and social justice, and the other in support of ethnic diversity, particularly African-American leadership.
SBC, the largest Protestant denomination in the US, was founded as a split from a larger Baptist grouping because their leaders and congregations believed that segregation and slave ownership was compatible with Scriptural beliefs. The result has been a long history of division within evangelicalism in America and SBC has today only a small level of membership from African-American-majority congregations. Two prominent churches have left the SBC since the CRT statement blew up, and others earlier in the year, and the matter remains live at the time of writing. The overall situation for the US evangelical community as a whole remains highly politicised, even as Christian nationalists (for example Charisma magazine’s publisher Steven Strang) maintain an unrelenting campaign against the transition to a Democratic presidency rolling on (still issuing new declarations as this post goes live). How did the political situation in the US come to this? Why is Trump different from any other US Republican president in the last 40 years?
The answer is that Christian nationalism never got such a sympathetic hearing from any other Republican president in the preceding four decades. As noted in previous posts in this blog, it is exceedingly rare for evangelicals to compare any political leader to someone in the Bible, and declaring Trump was akin to Cyrus was a pragmatic, but theologically heretical, move when the candidate turned out not to be of their chosen Christian faith. The Christian Nationalist faction of evangelicalism has been dominant ever since Trump was elected and proved more willing to accommodate this strand of theological belief than any of his predecessors. But has the result been good for the Church, let alone America? Ultimately, no. Trump has acceded to their beliefs simply because of his own personal character flaws, not because it is a good idea. Christian nationalism is not actually mainstream in America, let alone anywhere else. It is a divisive force within evangelicalism, and adhering to it means that democracy takes a back seat. Christian nationalists have adopted an extreme black and white political division of the American electoral system that places all Republicans in the God-fearing camp and all Democrats in the satanic realm. Christian nationalism got a good boost with Trump because as a non-believer, he had no foresight of the political divisions and ructions within the American church that would be created by boosting this faction of belief, something all of his predecessors rejected, for sound reasons, because Christian nationalism has not been historically supported by either house of Congress and many attempts to have the US Constitution or law changed to reflect a CN identity have failed to gain ground. Ultimately, this Trumpist unilateral change of direction has been about as successful as many of the other examples of the 45th presidency, and therefore likely to fade away into insignificance in the pages of history.
The inexhaustible conclusion, therefore, must be that the coalition of Christian nationalists and dominionists calling for the election result to be overturned are wittingly or unwittingly tapping into a wider sentiment in the Republican Party that has attempted to overturn the election results. Unfortunately this sentiment is not universally based on Christian views – unless the entrenchment of white racial superiority can be considered Christian. And where was it so in less recent times? In the Southern Baptist Convention. Therefore, the move by the SBC to placate its more conservative membership risks looking like a return to the past when it was all-white and supported segregation. Because of the move by some in the Republican Party to suppress the black vote, that is a huge risk that churches are taking by aligning themselves with the GOP. The CRT furore implies a certain level of willingness exists in the SBC to this type of accommodation (the organisation is already tying itself in knots over some of their senior leadership’s declared allegiance to or preference for the GOP and oppositional views from others like Russell Moore of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission). This became really apparent and embarrassing to Christians at the time of the Charlottesville protests in 2017 when the President’s Evangelical Advisory Board were falling over themselves to explain away POTUS’s implicit endorsement of white supremacism, and it became even more difficult to justify with the administration’s response to protests in a number of cities following the George Floyd killing. But that hasn’t stopped Christian nationalists from continuing to endorse Trump, as we can see from the ongoing claims of election fraud. However it cannot be denied that the US church, even in evangelicalism, is greatly divided over the Christian nationalist viewpoint and endorsement of Trump, and that this is unprecedented for any US presidency in recent history. It also risks being viewed as highly heretical and ultimately counterproductive to the Christian witness and Gospel message in the US.
The counterpoint to this is that the US was really intended to be established as a Christian nation as the Nationalists claim. But this would be hard to prove, because one of the key features of US society is religious diversity. The same sort of religious liberty that makes it possible for people to practice their Christian faith also allows them to express a range of differing religious views. This faith diversity was what made it possible for the split that took the Southern Baptists away from those supporting anti-segregationalist views to occur, and therefore helped to bring about the Church support for reformed civil rights in the 1960s. The tendency of Christian nationalists to align themselves with the Republicans, and in certain parts of the US, particularly in the South, tacitly accede to or at the very least turn a blind eye to voter suppression practices carried out in Republican-led states, is hardly likely to endear the rest of the evangelical or church community in the US to their particular theological viewpoint. This is the strongest argument against a theocracy in the US or anywhere; nations which have been established along such lines in the past have tended to become consumed with more secular preoccupations in the past such as power and perpetuation and have over time gone away from overtly Christian belief and practice. Ultimately the theological case for theocracy rests on a scriptural interpretation, often from a reading of dispensationalism, which many in the church consider heretical. Dispensationalists believe they must create the conditions in the church and the world to bring in the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. But for those who do not adhere to these beliefs, they are peddling many compromises and accommodations with secular or anti-Christian authorities, as has been seen during this term of the 45th presidency. Mostly, the problem with dispensationalism is the way that it diverts believers’ attention from the immediacy of the Gospel message into a whole series of more worldly considerations about the future of nations, which leads to unhealthy focus on conspiracy theories. Something that is all too apparent in the aftermath of the 2020 elections with unfounded claims of fraud, which are all miraculously drying up now legal action is being taken against certain media outlets and individuals. When Biden is inaugurated all of these CN-campaigning church leaders will have to go back to their congregations and explain just how they got another set of predictions and prophecies about the elections wrong, again.