I couldn’t believe it— a few weeks ago, I was kind of half-heartedly watching NBC Nightly News when out of the blue, smack in the middle of the broadcast, Brian Williams reported a very brief, less-than-one-minute story that the Southern Baptist Convention – this is no lie – had elected its first ever black president! I had watch it again to make sure that I understood right. The short video clip showed New Orleans pastor Fred Luter wiping away tears as he made his way to the podium in his starched-collared shirt. Brian Williams made some comment to the effect that this new leader’s election was a landmark event for the Southern Baptists, and then he moved on.
The Southern Baptists elected a black preacher as their head man? I know, I know, it’s the 21st century, and people change and all that . . . So I went looking and it wasn’t hard to find some news coverage on the web, apparently other people than just me felt like this was a story to follow, and I found more than just that one Baptist bombshell. An article from the Boston Herald about Luter’s election also relayed the fact of another resolution that was passed on the last day of the convention:
The Baptists also approved, by a vote of 2,446 to 2,232, a much-debated proposal that allows affiliated churches the option of describing themselves as “Great Commission Baptists.” Proponents argued that Southern Baptists outside the South and some in ethnic minority churches sometimes find the word “Southern” to be a handicap. Opponents said the Southern Baptist name stands for trust in the Bible and is a benefit.
How in the world could the term Southern serve as a “handicap”? I don’t know, maybe because of widely held popular conceptions about the South that are based images and stories from slavery, the Civil War, the Great Depression, lynching, the Ku Klux Klan, Civil Rights marches, church bombings, fire hoses and attack dogs, Emmett Till’s murder, the Little Rock Nine . . . or any other from a plethora of embarrassingly real historical examples of Southern brutality or backwardness— and including but not limited to the lyrical content of songs by Hank Williams, Jr. and Toby Keith. I can’t imagine non-Southerners wanting to shed that term “Southern”— in favor of something more Biblical like “Great Commission.” Can you?
Up to now, my admittedly limited understanding of Southern Baptists has revolved around notions of racism. The Southern Baptists had dubbed themselves as such back in 1845 to make sure the world understood that they were Christians, Baptists in particular, in the South in particular, who vehemently supported slavery, racial segregation, and white supremacy as Biblical and Godly directives and who equally and adamantly opposed abolition and racial equality. They were Baptists who did not buy into this “we’re all cut from the same cloth” idea. No, they proclaimed, God made white people in His image, and He made black people to be something less than that, an ideal which then freed up white people from having to extend Christian charity and kindness to black people. Convenient.
Jumping over the Civil War, which most people are aware that the South lost, we have Reconstruction-era Southern Baptists. In his 1998 book, Alabama Baptists: Southern Baptists in the Heart of Dixie, historian Wayne Flynt – who is also a Baptist preacher – wrote in his chapter, “War and Reunion” about the post-Civil War separation of races within the Southern Baptist churches, which was typical of Southern culture as a whole at that time. Flynt cites one 1868 representative of a denominational paper who “argued that though Negroes had rational and moral faculties, they were in fact subhuman. He believed that the Hebrew word nachash (translated in the Bible as ‘serpent’) should have been translated as ‘Negro.’ God’s curse of the serpent in the Garden of Eden had thus been a curse on blacks” (134). Flynt also describes another situation when Klan members met at Baptist churches to plan and coordinate the murder of a political enemy, since sometimes Baptist preachers were fully participating members of these kinds of execution squads. These facts serve as predominant examples of 19th-century Southern Baptist racial attitudes, although Flynt does take pains to point out that rules have exceptions and, within the post-bellum South, instances of Baptist racial cooperation did exist, like white preachers who preached at black revivals and sporadic cases of a rare few black Baptists being allowed to attend some white church services. Coupling the rationale that black people are “subhuman” with Southern political ideals, a Biblical perspective that removes white people’s responsibilities of Christian charity to black people becomes possible, ideologically.
Big jump now— from 1868 to 1968, from Alabama to southern California. It’s post-Watts riot Los Angeles. Times change, and apparently so does the Southern Baptist Convention, as it spreads and evolves. Historian Darren Dochuk writes his 2011 book, From Bible Belt to Sun Belt, about how Southern Baptists in southern California – does that even sound possible? – responded to the riots with attempts at racial reconciliation that involved Billy Graham doing flyovers in helicopters, local churches holding “Race Relations Sundays,” and everyday Baptists attempting real grassroots efforts at having religion achieve what politics could not. Under the subheading, “Forging a Color-Blind Gospel,” within the chapter “Creative Society,” Dochuk describes, for example, changes in racial attitudes brought on by Dallas pastor and SBC president W.A. Criswell, whose own turnaround prompted others:
California Southern Baptists also took notice of the turnabout on race by W.A. Criswell, who, by virtue of his presidency of the SBC and his pastorate of the denomination’s largest church, served as a bellweather for change. At the onset of the civil rights backlash in the 1950s, Criswell had stood before South Carolina legislators to blast the Brown v. Board of Education ruling and the “bunch of infidels” who concocted it. Twelve years later he owned up to his “colossal mistake” and admitted that his segregationist rant was the product of an unintelligent reading of scripture and a callousness to pervasive inequalities. (278)
Dochuk explains that many Southern Baptists in southern California “saw evangelistic pleas to the heart as the best antidote for any social ill, and between 1965 and 1968 they began putting it into practice” (279).
People can change over the course of a hundred years, especially if they’re living in a place or time (California in 1968) nowhere near the time and place that their organization was created (the Deep South in 1845). I still have to shake my head when I think of people in southern California considering themselves Southern Baptists, but yeah okay, whatever. If Southern Baptists are the largest Protestant denomination in the country, then I guess there would have to be some in California, too.
I continued fishing around about this barely believable story, and read the Washington Post article on Luter’s election, which is pretty cut-and-dried in its treatment of the institutional inner-workings/modern political reality of the SBC, but does offer this interesting note about race:
Members of black Southern Baptist churches — which make up about 8 percent of some the SBC’s 45,000 congregations — have hailed the expected election. Some said they were shocked and never thought they’d live to see such an occurrence.
The Washington Post’s treatment gives most of its attention to the boots-on-the-ground situation that the Southern Baptists face, including declining membership and recruitment possibilities in minority communities, and the election of Fred Luter seems to serve related institutional goals. What do you do if you’re losing members? Change and see if you can attract some new people. If, by all appearances, the modern Southern Baptist is not a dyed-in-the-wool racist anymore, as evidenced by their 1995 “Resolution on Racial Reconciliation on the 150th Anniversary of the Southern Baptist Convention” to “denounce racism, in all its forms, as a deplorable sin,” and by this fact cited by the Washington Post:
A recent survey by the SBC’s LifeWay Research found that the majority of Southern Baptist pastors were ready for a black president.
then electing a black president of an organization whose membership is less than one-twelfth black can certainly serve to remedy some problems, including public perception problems. Very real public perception problems, which are evidenced by that name-change resolution.
In the modern Southern Baptist Convention, we have an institution that has its roots in a mid-18th-century slave-holding racism, that has changed its politics (mostly in the last half-century), and that has landed here in the early 21st century with a new black president and this optional-name-change resolution. Great Commission Baptists, if you please. I looked on the Southern Baptist Convention’s website, under Resolutions, but at the time of this writing, the recent name-change resolution had not been posted there for me to read; the most recent resolutions posted were dated 2011.
Yet, Los Angeles Times reporter Laura J. Nelson’s article, “Southern Baptists: Churches can use ‘Great Commission’ instead,” focuses on that resolution, calling the change “an alternative name that will allow churches to distance themselves from the organization’s past ties to slavery and racism.” A few paragraphs down, not far into the article, this quote confirmed my preliminary beliefs about the reason:
“In regions outside of the South, ‘Southern’ may conjure up a regional stereotype that becomes a hindrance to the Gospel,” Roger S. “Sing” Oldham, a spokesman for the denomination, told the Los Angeles Times. “Our brothers and sisters in Christ who are of other race and language groups can now identify themselves with something that does not hearken back to a Southern past.”
Nelson also writes in the article about Southern Baptists being the largest Protestant denomination in the US and their being predominantly white, yet she cites another fact to coalesce a larger picture of modern life: “More than 4 in 10 Americans said in a recent poll that knowing a church was Southern Baptist would negatively affect their decision to visit or join.” However, statistics are like Bible verses in one respect: you can pick and choose and isolate either one in order to serve any point you want to make. For example, 4 out of 10 Americans may be turned off by Southern Baptists, but 2 out of 10 Americans are Catholic and wouldn’t want to join any Protestant denomination, Southern Baptist or not. So what does that polling statistic really say?
Leaving the name-change as an option – you won’t be reading about the Great Commission Baptist Convention any time soon – still leaves the other option to “hearken back to a Southern past” for every church that wants to keep the Southern Baptist label. This fence-straddling, tightrope-walking resolution allow a change for those who want it and leaves it the same for those who want that. Name changes are dubious at best; take as one example the anti-Civil Rights group called the White Citizens Councils, which formed in 1954 then changed their official name in 1956 to the far less ominous Citizens Councils of America, only to rebrand themselves again in the 1970s as the Council of Conservative Citizens. While certain kinds of Southerners take great pride in labeling anything “Southern” for the purpose of making it seem better – Southern fried chicken, Southern fiction, Southern hospitality – not everyone carries those charming connotations to the term.
Being huge has its disadvantages. The Southern Baptist Convention must know that. An organization that was founded to be regional and issue-specific did not wither and/or go away, as so many bygone-era organizations did – The Wheel and The Grange, The Citizens Councils and Sovereignty Commissions – but instead evolved and grew, morphed and adapted, and would probably love to shed some aspects of its past that have absolutely nothing to do with spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ, what “Sing” Oldham called a “hindrance to the Gospel.” I wonder how the current leadership would feel about about being asked: How do you reconcile electing a man to be president who your founders would have believed to be subhuman?
I learned a few things going through this history. For example, I had heard of Southern Baptists, certainly, but had no idea that a parallel organization for African-Americans existed: the National Baptist Convention. I also learned from Darren Dochuk’s book that Billy Graham was largely responsible for pushing right-wing Christians into the loving arms of the Republican Party. Nonetheless, I have to congratulate the Southern Baptist Convention – in all seriousness – for being so open about their current disavowals of racism; now I hope their membership gets that message with the same fervor that they got the message to vote Republican. If that happens then we really will be a little closer to Jesus down here in the Deep South.