This week Southern Baptist seminaries announced:
we stand together on historic Southern Baptist condemnations of racism in any form and we also declare that affirmation of Critical Race Theory, Intersectionality, and any version of Critical Theory is incompatible with the Baptist Faith & Message.
Read Jemar Tisby to understand the racial message this is sending in 2020. I want to focus here on the rhetorical tradition in which this statement operates.
Many Southern Baptists are likely to imagine that this statement is a good case of level-headed moderation. They may not realize that it bears striking resemblance to a very old pattern of racist rhetoric within and without the convention.
The basic rhetorical move is over a century old, and elites who desired respectability and mainstream support for their racist goals came to rely upon it. It combines a vague condemnation of racism in abstract terms with a reactionary posture to the specific racial matter at hand. We condemn racism in general, and we also unequivocally condemn the tools anti-racists have developed to confront racism.
During Jim Crow: of course we don’t want to go back to the bad old days of slavery. I’m glad it’s gone. But let me tell you why social equality won’t work.
During battles over anti-lynching bills: of course I’m against vigilantism in any form, but let me tell you why a federal anti-lynching bill will do more harm than good.
During debate over the Civil Rights Act of 1964: “Rights…belong to all of us regardless of color…” and let me tell you why this bill would actually make racism worse.
Today: of course black lives matter, but let me tell you why police reform hurts the people it purports to help.
But you really want to see this pattern within the SBC, right? Ok, let me show you with one suggestive example.
After the Supreme Court’s Brown v Board decision in 1954, Southern white elites came under intense pressure from the grassroots to resist school integration. The same dynamic played out within the SBC as numerous regional associations in the South passed resolutions declaring their unalterable commitment to segregation and criticizing convention bodies such as the Christian Life Commission and the Sunday School Board for their moderate racial statements.
What were SBC elites to do? On the one hand was the Christian principle of love without regard to color. On the other was the inflammatory political question of school integration. The general and the specific were colliding. Probably no one in the SBC faced these issues more directly than Brooks Hays.
Hays found himself playing key roles in both the politics of the South and the Southern Baptist Convention. A Congressman from Arkansas, Hays was known as a relative moderate on racial questions, but what moderation meant in that moment needs clarification. Hays signed the 1956 “Southern Manifesto” declaring opposition to Brown v Board and encouraging states to “resist forced integration by any lawful means.” Yet during the Little Rock Crisis, Hays advocated compromise and became a target for segregationist criticism.
The Southern Manifesto, widely seen as reactionary outside the South, was the bare minimum politicians within the South had to support to maintain credibility. Hays was rewarded for his painful balancing act. Southern Baptists elected him to the presidency of the convention in 1957. From that position Hays continued to remind his constituents that he had gone on the record against “forced integration.” At the same time, he declared that he was “trying to follow New Testament principles, particularly the injunction of Paul to ‘speak the truth in love.'”1
Hays and other SBC elites tended to see themselves as standing between the “extremes” of the White Citizens’ Councils on the one hand and the NAACP on the other. While advocating Christian love and deploring “hatred” of all kinds, they accused the people who were actually resisting racism of promoting “anarchy.” At every turn, the non-negotiable element of their racial rhetoric was not black freedom, but the unity of the SBC. As Hays put it,
Our principle interest right now is to hold our scattered congregations together. Our people entertain differences on the race question, but I am trying to steer a course that will put no strains upon us and enable us to differ in love.2
This remains the principle interest of SBC elites in 2020. Instead of standing for racial justice come what may, they offer the same sorts of platitudes their ancestors did, while once again condemning anti-racism as it actually exists. It is a curious set of commitments. The convention, for all its flaws, must be held together at nearly any cost. But anti-racist movements and organizations must be examined with a fine-tooth comb and rejected if they fall short in any way.
The narrative within the SBC is that there have been drastic changes since the deplorable days of Southern Baptists’ support for segregation. But their own rhetoric shows how empty these claims are. Opposing racism in theory while accommodating it in fact is a very old strategy, and today’s SBC elites are giving it new life.
1 Brooks Hays to Mrs. R.C. McLeod Nov 6 1957, Brooks Hays Papers, Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives.
2 Brooks Hays to Mr. D.K. Martin, January 15, 1958, Brooks Hays Papers, Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives.
*For a much more sympathetic account of Hays’ actions see David Roach.