Failing to learn from history…

Growing up in Southern Baptist Churches (though not, technically, in the South), I was taught that the denomination was formed during the Civil War. Because there was an actual war going on, annual conventions couldn’t meet. Also, I was told, a lot of the northern churches were mixed up in politics and had been looking for an excuse to ditch the southern churches who were more concerned with missionary work.

Later, I learned that almost every last one of those details was utterly false.

The Southern Baptist Churches split off from the nationwide Triennial Baptist Convention 15 years prior to the Civil War. The primary reason they split was that the Southern Churches were pro-slavery. They were extremely pro-slavery, arguing that God picked which people were born one race or another because he knew which ones needed to be subservient, and which needed to be in charge. Most of the people who attended Baptist churches in the North were anti-slavery, and thought that all humans, being God’s children, should be equal before the law.

It was true that there was also a more minor disagreement about missionary work. But it was about how the work should be funded, not about whether it was important. Most of the Southern church members felt that money could be pooled from individual churches and members, to support all missionary work, while most members in the North saw that as the first slide down the horribly slippery slope into hierarchy, bishops, popes, et cetera.

It’s also true that that disagreement about how to pay for missionary work continues to divide some of the Baptist Conventions to this day, but the truth was that all the grievances raised in that August, Georgia convention in 1845 where the Southern Baptist Convention was founded revolved around slavery: preachers should be allowed to own slaves, missionaries should be allowed to take slaves with them to perform support labor for the missions, the church should support the institution of slavery, slaves and former slaves should worship in separate churches, and so on.

One hundred years after the civil war, Southern Baptist Churches were a major force opposed to Civil Rights legislation, and in favor of segregation of the races. So it should come as no surprise that even today, a bit over 80% of the Southern Baptist membership is white. Most of those few African-American Southern Baptists attend predominately Black churches. Most of the few Latino Southern Baptists attend their own, predominantly Hispanic churches.

This week, for the first time in it’s 167-year history, it has elected an African-American pastor as its President. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s much of a sign of change. It’s particularly troubling that this man who was just elected President of the denomination didn’t even know about the pro-slavery and pro-segregation history of the church until reporters started asking him questions.

On top of that, at the same meeting where they elected him, they also adopted resolutions opposing gay rights (not just gay marriage, as has been widely reported—they have the usual laundry list, along with the declaration that homosexuality is a sin, that sexual orientation is a choice, that laws shouldn’t protect gays from employment discrimination, et cetera).

Another of their big concerns is the fact that an increasing percentage of young people reject religion, or at least perceive religious organizations as bigoted. So the newly-elected President was talking about how to appeal to the “do-rag wearing and iPod listening” generation. Even though he’s a Black man, he seemed surprised that some reporters thought that “do-rag wearing” sounded a bit… prejudiced.

I wish I could believe that this was an honest attempt to elect the person they felt best suited to lead the organization. But it seems like more of the same old tokenism. Just as the Republican Party scraped around to find an African American Chairman right after the country elected an African America Democratic candidate to the White House. Just as the scores of conservative activist groups that have some reference to Black or African American in their name, and all have a single Black president or chairperson, yet 95 or more percent of the rest of the staff and officers are white, this just feels like a very calculated and cynical move.

I’ve already heard one of the other pastors try to deflect the characterization that all the anti-gay positions they overwhelmingly adopted this week are signs of bigotry by pointing out that they elected a Black man President of the organization. “We can’t be prejudiced! Look how open-minded we are by electing him!” Never mind how condescending that sounds. Never mind that it contradicts their own claims that sexual orientation doesn’t belong in the same category as race.

It’s just the same old song and dance. And the same denial and self-delusion.

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