A substantial portion of the president’s core support comes from American evangelicals. They have prospered from that support but in return have had to tolerate behavior that few would regard as exemplary for Christians. This is not the first time that American Christians have muted their principles to gain political and economic power.
In the 1840s, American Baptists were engaged in an internal struggle over what it meant to be a Christian. Specifically, could a Christian be a slave owner?
The Southern Baptists pointed to the curse of Noah’s grandson, Canaan, whose father, Ham, had looked upon Noah’s naked body as he lay passed out from drink. Canaan and his children were to forever be a “servant to servants” (Genesis 9:18-27). They also took note of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians where he tells servants to be obedient “with fear and trembling” and to love their service as they would love god (Ephesians 4:5-7).
The Northern Baptists were more taken by Jesus’ words and action in the New Testament, teachings that seemed to require all Christians to accept each other as brothers in Christ. By the 1840s, Northern Baptists — indeed, most Protestant denominations — had become an organizational arm of American abolitionism. In May 1845 the Southern Baptists bolted and formed the Southern Baptist Convention.
The Civil War dealt most southern institutions a blow from which many never recovered, but not the convention. In 1845, there were under a half-million members, but by 1905, it had grown to 1.9 million. Today, it is the second largest Christian denomination in America (Catholicism is first) with 15 million members.
Although the convention is today regarded as a fairly conservative, evangelical religion, it has had its more liberal moments. It initially supported Roe v. Wade , abortion and abortion rights, for example. But it has always been uncomfortable with changing social policy. It was, at best, apathetic about the 1960s civil rights movement, has consistently opposed legislation seeking 14th Amendment protection for LGBT people and always supported gender roles. It was not until the mid-1990s that the convention renounced its racist history and apologized for its support of slavery.
Any organization with a 170-year history will have old policy and behaviors it wants to hide. We often don’t want to admit it, but values and beliefs do change over time. Many things deemed important and just in the last century are seen as quaint, parochial and of little consequence today. Yet, this has not protected southern Civil War monuments, streets named after southern heroes, and university halls and buildings associated with southern antebellum people and places.
It’s hard to discern why the convention gets a pass on its racist history when Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson statues do not. It is probably far easier to pull down a statue in some southern podunk town than call out a national organization with a well-supported war chest and 15 million members that could field a sizable armed militia anytime it wanted to.
At this point, it seems rather senseless to tie the Southern Baptist Convention to its founding principle, the support of slavery. What we can learn from its story is how close religious views — even evangelical views — are influenced by the economy around them and the opportunity to accrue power and influence.
It chose to support slavery not because it had significant biblical support, but because its membership survived in a regional economy that it felt depended upon slavery. To oppose slavery was seen as opposing the economic basis of their culture and future. Supporting slavery made it an integral part of the community’s power structure and enhanced its membership support. The convention made a decision that inflated the Southern Baptists’ power and size in the short term, but would come to regret and whose consequences live on 173 years later.
Today, we see evangelical Christians pursuing the same goals as the early Southern Baptist Convention. In exchange for policies that support their growth, ideology and political power, they are willing to support a chief executive, his cohorts and an agenda that they would never tolerate as a leader, parishioner or policy in their own religion. Can anyone seriously believe that an evangelical pastor who bragged about sexually assaulting women, cheated contractors by way of selective bankruptcy, and mimicked the crippled and afflicted in front of a cheering audience would receive the blessing and support of the congregation?
How far this hypocrisy will extend is anybody’s guess. I keep looking for that line in the sand beyond which evangelicals will not walk; I have not found it and don’t see one close at hand. I am beginning to doubt it exists.
Alan Haley writes about economics and Maine life from his Skowhegan home. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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