Friday, March 03, 2017

On Baptists

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About two years ago I was asked to be on a panel about religion .  I had prepared a spiel about the global state of Christianity, but the moderator had one question for me, “How do you explain Westboro Baptist?”

I am still floored by this, and eventually, toward the end of the talk, was able to make the point that there are 2 billion people on the planet who call themselves Christians and there are 29 people in Westboro Baptist, so it’s not really a comparison.  Needless to say, I don’t plan to be on a panel like that again.

The problem, of course, is that there are dozens of kinds of Baptists and it doesn’t take an act of Congress to put the name Baptist on a shingle.  Also, people don’t know that the pastor of Westboro Baptist was a civil rights attorney and defended African Americans against Jim Crow laws.  He was also allegedly a pretty nasty fellow at times. 

Where would America be without Baptists?  I ask this seriously. First, there would be a Rhode Island.  Roger Williams fought the hegemony of the Puritans, who, although I respect them in many ways, had it all wrong about religious freedom.  If everyone doesn’t have religious freedom, no one has it, not really.

We wouldn’t have that famous, often misquoted and generally misunderstood letter where Thomas Jefferson talked about a “wall of separation” between government and church.  That was written to Baptists in Virginia.

We wouldn’t have had the second great awakening around 1800.

We wouldn’t have had the same kind of missionary movement, thank you William Carey.

We wouldn’t have had countless orphanages, missions, colleges, schools, and hospitals. 

Now, before anybody gets riled up, this has nothing to do with Westboro Baptist.  They were reprehensible and I don’t know how they kept from being the heck beaten out of them at some of their protests.  They seem to have gone away, at least from media attention (but not really), so good riddance. 

This is also a recognition that not all Baptists (as in most of them in the South) got it right about slavery or civil rights. They were woefully wrong about that, and the Southern Baptists are trying to make it right, I think, from the leadership.  Unfortunately, many in the pews hold on to racist ideas and attitudes and feel pretty good about it.

I know this because our pastor put a link to an article in the Gospel Coalition about Spurgeon, an ardent abolitionist, who was warned not to come to the South on a preaching tour because his books were being burned and he was being physically threatened.  The article is pretty sickening, and some of the comments show that “being a Southerner” and defending Southern honor was more important to the commenters than being spiritually right about the dignity of the imago dei. 

They hide this under Southern pride, as if being a Southerner should be seen like being African American or Hispanic. This kind of thinking escapes me.  Spurgeon was right, his opponents were wrong.  Not because they “were on the wrong side of history” (an odd phrase, when you think about it), but because desiring to keep people enslaved and/or without their legal rights as citizens is wicked and always is and was, despite what “history” says (a logical fallacy of hypostatization, by the way.)   
And this is not to even touch upon the great contributions of African American Baptists in fighting for equal treatment under the law. 

It is simply to state we wouldn’t be the U.S. today, better or worse, without the influence of Baptists of all stripes. 

The core of being a Baptist is being a person of the Bible, of conscience, and being a little bit ornery or at least willing to be different.  Early Baptists were treated pretty badly just because they didn't want to baptize babies and wanted to wait until the convert was an adult, a pretty innocuous  desire, when you think about it, but it was seen as disrupting the whole social order at the time.  Martin Luther sure wasn't very kind to them.  The German Anabaptists (who became Mennonites, Hutterites, and Amish) were a somewhat different breed than the English Baptists of the 1600s from which most of us descend theologically today, those dissenters who operated outside of the state church of England and were represented in literature by Paul Bunyan.  They were Calvinistic but had different takes on church polity.

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