Retreating Or Repositioning?: Southern Baptists And The ‘Culture War’

Is the Southern Baptist Convention surrendering in the 'culture war'? Not quite.

When the Religious Right started to become a prominent force in American politics in the late 1970s, its advocates had a major impact on the country’s largest Protestant denomination: the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).

Younger readers may be surprised to read that the SBC, which claims 16 million members, used to be fairly moderate on social issues. It strongly supported the separation of church and state, citing historical Baptist leaders like John Leland and Isaac Backus.

But during the 1980s, the denomination fell to a well-organized fundamentalist bloc and flipped many of its positions. The SBC became closely aligned with the Religious Right and the Republican Party. It enlisted as a full-time combatant in the “culture war.”

In Washington, D.C., the SBC was represented by its lobbyist, Richard Land. Land pushed the denomination into even closer alignment with the GOP, often handicapping the prospects of Republican presidential candidates in the media. Land appeared at Religious Right meetings and never hesitated to reach for the most lurid rhetoric.

Land retired from the SBC in 2013. His successor, Russell Moore, is, according to a recent Wall Street Journal profile, interested in stepping back from the culture wars.

The Journal reports that Moore believes it is time to dial down the rhetoric and pull back from partisan politics. He cites a “visceral recoil” among younger evangelicals to heavy handed church-based politicking.

“We are involved in the political process, but we must always be wary of being co-opted by it,” Moore said. “Christianity thrives when it is clearest about what distinguishes it from the outside culture.”

OK, what’s really going on here? I suspect several factors are at play.

First of all, short of giving the job to Ralph Reed, it would have been next to impossible for the SBC to have hired a replacement more extreme and more partisan than Land. This is the guy, after all, who once spoke of his desire to “consummate” the relationship between right-wing evangelicals and the GOP, compared Hillary Clinton to a witch and called U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer that “schmuck from New York.”

In comparison to Land, just about anyone would look more moderate.

Secondly, the use of less strident language is nice, but it doesn’t mean that the SBC’s policy positions are going to change. In fact, the Journal article makes it clear that the SBC has no plans to soften any of its far-right stands on issues like religion in public education, LGBT rights, reproductive rights, etc.

Sure, they’ll talk nicer while they push for theocracy. Big deal.

Thirdly, some of this appears to be a public relations stunt. The leaders of the SBC know they have a problem with younger people, so they are toning down the rhetoric in the hopes that more congregants won’t jump ship. This may fool some people, but again, it’s not a change of policy. (See point two above.)

Over at the American Family Association, Bryan Fischer, the poor man’s Glenn Beck, is on the warpath, asserting that Moore is leading the SBC into a position of surrender.

“Since one man’s ‘pullback’ is another’s ‘full-scale retreat,’ social conservatives have a right to raise questions about the new course Moore is setting for the SBC,” Fischer bemoaned. Elsewhere he added, “Moore seems to have forgotten that Christ has not called us to be nice but to be good. Nice people never confront evil, but good people do.”

But Fischer throws a fit every day. It’s what he’s paid to do – be perpetually outraged and outrageous. We can hardly look to him for sound analysis of any issue outside of how to build really strong tinfoil hats.

I don’t see this as a retreat in the culture wars by the SBC, and it’s certainly not a surrender. I’d call it a tactical repositioning.

So keep your guard up. I suspect we haven’t seen the last of the SBC’s salvos against the church-state wall.

P.S. Remember, not all Baptists agree with the SBC on church-state issues. Our good friends at the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty have stood alongside AU for years, arguing for the traditional Baptist principle of freedom of conscience for all.