Is This A Normal Southern Baptist Church?

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Stephanie McCrummen’s profile of a southern baptist church in Alabama is getting some attention this morning. I’m not sure what to make of it. She talked to a lot of people in the congregation. Here’s an excerpt:

What was important was not the character of the president but his positions, they said, and one mattered more than all the others. “Abortion,” said Linda, whose eyes teared up when she talked about it.

Trump was against it. It didn’t matter that two decades ago he had declared himself to be “very pro-choice.” He was now saying “every life totally matters,” appointing antiabortion judges and adopting so many antiabortion policies that one group called him “the most pro-life president in history.”

It was the one political issue on which First Baptist had taken a stand, a sin one member described as “straight from the pits of Hell,” and which Crum had called out when he preached on “Thou shalt not kill” the Sunday before, reminding the congregation about the meaning of his tiny lapel pin. “It’s the size of a baby’s feet at ten weeks,” he had said.

There was Terry Drew, who sat in the seventh pew on the left side, who knew and agreed with Trump’s position, and knew that supporting him involved a blatant moral compromise.

“I hate it,” he said. “My wife and I talk about it all the time. We rationalize the immoral things away. We don’t like it, but we look at the alternative, and think it could be worse than this.”

The only way to understand how a Christian like him could support a man who boasted about grabbing women’s crotches, Terry said, was to understand how he felt about the person Trump was still constantly bringing up in his speeches and who loomed large in Terry’s thoughts: Hillary Clinton, whom Terry saw as “sinister” and “evil” and “I’d say, of Satan.”

“She hates me,” Terry said, sitting in Crum’s office one day. “She has contempt for people like me, and Clay, and people who love God and believe in the Second Amendment. I think if she had her way it would be a dangerous country for the likes of me.”

As he saw it, there was the issue of Trump’s character, and there was the issue of Terry’s own extinction, and the choice was clear.

“He’s going to stick to me,” Terry said.

So many members of First Baptist saw it that way.

There was Jan Carter, who sat in the 10th pew center, who said that supporting Trump was the only moral thing to do.

“You can say righteously I do not support him because of his moral character but you are washing your hands of what is happening in this country,” she said, explaining that in her view America was slipping toward “a civil war on our shores.”

There was her friend Suzette, who sat in the fifth pew on the right side, and who said Trump might be abrasive “but we need abrasive right now.”

And there was Sheila Butler, who sat on the sixth pew on the right side, who said “we’re moving toward the annihilation of Christians.”

It’s worth reading the whole thing. I’d like to know more about how McCrummen came to write about this particular church and what her own background is. If this was an academic religious studies article, it might be preceded by some elaborate handwringing about her own beliefs and cultural location and how those affected her work and interactions. Instead, because this is a profile in the Washington Post, the reporter is more or less invisible even as she crafts a narrative with a strong undertone of contempt. I’m not saying the contempt isn’t deserved, but I think there are real ethical questions here.

As for the congregation, the main thing I wonder is if it is representative of southern baptist churches today. It seems like many of the most outlandish quotes came from elderly people. Whether it’s representative or not, for this congregation we can say this:

–Abortion is really important.

–Hillary hatred is alive and well.

–There is an enormous amount of fear about Christians losing their place in America, or even their lives.

–Theological ignorance, even to the point of heresy, is common. Christian nationalism heightens their fears and turns them away from Christianity.

–Many feel conflicted about supporting Trump, but not necessarily for the reasons anti-Trump people oppose him. Even people who expressed discomfort did not name his racism as one of their qualms. Others suggested that racism was one of the things they most appreciated about him.

So: fear, racism, ignorance, Christian nationalism, and some concern for the unborn. It’s a damning portrait.

Finding Community In A Book Tour

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John Fea is on the road for his new book. Today he reflects on the experience thus far:

As I talk with the folks who come to these events for Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, a narrative seems to be emerging.  People are deeply troubled about the state of evangelical Christianity in America.  Last night I heard stories of men and women deeply scarred by experiences with authoritarian, politically-driven evangelical Christianity.  Some have left evangelicalism for the Protestant mainline.  Others have left Christianity entirely.  Still others are in search of a more hopeful Christianity.  Evangelical pastors are wondering how they can minister to congregations divided by politics.

These people are telling me their stories–sometimes through tears.  The other night I spoke with an evangelical Christian who said that he felt more at home with the people he met at the book signing than he did at his own evangelical church.  What does this say about the state of the evangelical church?

I expected a lot of knock-down, drag-out political debates on this book tour.  Instead I am hearing from a lot of hurting people.  I am trying to offer encouragement and prayers.  But mostly I am just trying to listen.

This sounds about right. Of course, the people who show up to a bookstore to hear an anti-Trump evangelical author talk about his work are a self-selecting group. My question is how large this group is. I was just in the library this morning looking at some alienated and angry white evangelicals in the 1980s! I see lots of anecdotal evidence that the sense of alienation from evangelicalism is larger now than it was then, more pervasive. But we will probably have to wait several years for the trend lines to become clear.

A Sermon Suggestion for Tomorrow

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Michael Gerson has an idea for tomorrow morning’s sermon:

You know I don’t preach politics from this pulpit. There are many political and policy views among Christians, and many represented here in this sanctuary. But our faith involves a common belief with unavoidably public consequences: Christians are to love their neighbor, and everyone is their neighbor. All the appearances of difference — in race, ethnicity, nationality and accomplishment — are deceptive. The reality is unseen. God’s distribution of dignity is completely and radically equal. No one is worthless. No one is insignificant. No one should be reduced to the status of a thing. This is the changeless truth in our changing politics. You can argue about what constitutes effective criminal-justice policy — but, as a Christian, you cannot view and treat inmates like animals. You can disagree about the procedures by which our country takes in refugees — but you can’t demonize them for political gain. And you can argue about the proper shape of our immigration system — but you can’t support any policy that achieves its goal by purposely terrorizing children.

Those of you who are churchgoers, what do you think? Would this message be welcomed in your church?

I wonder if most Trump followers in the pews would be ok with this sermon because they would just say Trump isn’t actually doing any of these things. If people just sidestep this message, what’s a pastor to do? I don’t envy pastors in this time.

Cartoon of the Day: Evangelicals & Watergate Edition

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Paul Conrad, Los Angeles Times, May 30, 1974

Evangelicals have been getting themselves in compromising political situations for a long time. Here, Paul Conrad lampoons Billy Graham’s slavish support for Nixon in the waning months of a doomed presidency. The scene is a typical Billy Graham revival, except the seats are empty. It’s time for the altar call. “All those wishing to make a ‘Decision for Nixon’ will please come forward,” Graham says. But the only person in the audience is Nixon himself, looking grim. The joke is on both men—Graham, for politicizing the gospel, Nixon, for having lost the public’s trust. No one is going to answer that altar call.

I’ve written before about Graham’s dalliances with political power and how he came to regret them. When I stumbled across a reference to this cartoon yesterday I wanted to track it down and see it for myself. It’s a humorous and apt reminder of the damage done when Christians become enablers rather than prophets in the public square.

Pence’s Speech to the Southern Baptist Convention

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Voting to retain Pence as speaker. Holly Meyer / The Tennessean

Vice-President Mike Pence has concluded his speech at the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention. Yesterday there was a motion to replace the speech with a time of prayer, but it was easily voted down. John Fea has the details here. In defense of the decision to welcome Pence, the chairman of the business committee said this:

On a personal note, if President Obama’s White House had contacted us and I was chairman of this committee, we would have exercised the same judgement and welcomed them to the Southern Baptist Convention.

Some are skeptical of this, but I believe him. Yet it completely misses the point. Everyone knows that SBC is a conservative institution. If Vice-President Biden had spoken at the convention, it would have rightly been understood as an act of hospitality and toleration on the part of the SBC. It would have been a way of saying the convention was open to dialogue with its opponents.

Welcoming political power with which the convention is already so closely aligned is a very different sort of move, one that speaks not of Christian hospitality but of crass conflation of conservative theology with conservative politics. So it looks bad, and it looks far worse when you account for the moral posture of the current administration. President Obama was a decent man. So was George W. Bush. No serious person can say the same of President Trump. Welcoming a representative of an anti-Christ administration to the stage can be defended on its own terms, but let’s not pretend it’s the same sort of act a welcome to a previous administration would have been.

After watching Pence’s speech, it seems the convention’s time might have been better spent in prayer and repentance. Here are the thoughts I jotted down as the speech unfolded:

Introducing Pence, Steve Gaines says, “I am so grateful to have a vice-president who not only loves people but also loves the Lord Jesus Christ.” Pence receives a big ovation from the crowd.

Pence says he wants to begin by bringing greetings from President Trump. Loud applause and cheers. “Four more years!” someone yells. Five minutes before, they were singing worship songs.

Pence talks about all the good Southern Baptists are doing and then segues into his own 1978 conversion experience. “I gave my life to Jesus Christ. It’s made all the difference.”

He says Southern Baptists have always worked for renewal, and our nation is in a moment of renewal, “a new beginning of greatness in America.” The greatest privilege of his life, he says, has been working for President Trump. “500 days of promises made and promises kept.” Loud applause.

Pence is going through the litany of the Trump administration’s “accomplishments.” Yesterday’s summit agreement about nothing gets big applause.

Pence keeps referring back to Trump, the great leader. He has this patented way of communicating that he is Trump’s toady and exercises no independent thought or moral judgment. He’s completely shameless. SBC leaders knew Pence would use this speech to talk about how great Trump is, right? They knew this would be a political speech.

I’m surprised how much of this speech is about North Korea.

Now as he tells a personal story he appears to be trying to cry but can’t quite get there.

Pence says strong American leadership is crucial for the resolution of the Korean conflict, but says he and Trump both know that the “effective fervent prayers” of righteous people are needed. This is a reference to James 5:16.

“Unlike his predecessors, this President kept his word” when he moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. This line gets a roar and a standing ovation.

Now touting the tax cuts. More cheers. This is just a regular campaign speech with a few religious lines thrown in.

“Under President Donald Trump America is back and we’re just getting started.” Loud cheers.

Pence is emphasizing the Trump Administration’s efforts to protect “religious liberty.” Appointing conservative judges, protecting Christians in the Middle East.

“I couldn’t be more proud to stand with a President who stands without apology for the sanctity of human life. President Donald Trump is the most pro-life President in American history.” This earns a general standing ovation across the convention hall. For anyone outside the Trumpist bubble, it’s very hard to believe that Trump or Pence care about the unborn when they are so cruel to the born.

Mike Pence says all Trump’s wonderful accomplishments would not be possible without the support of people like you (meaning Southern Baptists). Pence says Trump has “deep respect” for people of faith. “We respect how you care for the most vulnerable” Pence says, like how you try to help the people Trump and I are trying to oppress. Oh wait, he didn’t say that last part.

Pence is, inevitably, making a fool of himself. Hypocrisy on an almost unfathomable scale. Pence says “in divided times” Southern Baptist values and compassion are needed more than ever. He concludes with a call to keep practicing compassion, “especially for the most vulnerable,” and to “pray for America.” Then he quotes the classic text of Christian nationalists: 2 Chronicles 7:14.

I like the call for compassion, but I wish Pence wouldn’t support racism, sexual assault, tearing families apart, and lawlessness in general. I take the old-fashioned view that what a person does matters. But apparently I’m a snowflake for thinking that. This whole spectacle brings to mind another passage of scripture:

He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the Lord.

Mike Pence to Speak at Southern Baptist Convention

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Mike Pence worshiping his god.

Vice-President Mike Pence has been invited to speak at the Southern Baptist Convention’s Annual Meeting tomorrow. The press release is…interesting: “We are excited to announce Vice President Mike Pence will be attending this year’s SBC annual meeting to express appreciation to Southern Baptists for the contributions we make to the moral fabric of our nation.”

It is telling that southern baptist leaders think Mike Pence has anything useful to say about the moral fabric of the nation, or that he cares about anyone who contributes to it. It is amazing that they can’t see how this will look to anyone who isn’t already a true believer in their brand of hateful politics.

Mike Pence has repeatedly lied and covered for all kinds of evil in recent years. He supports racism and flagrantly denies Christian teachings on caring for the poor, the sick, and the refugee. He is militantly hostile to Christianity. This is the kind of man the southern baptists want at their convention. Very telling.

Jemar Tisby gets this right:

Vice President Mike Pence is scheduled to speak to the Southern Baptist Convention on Wednesday, and the evangelical leaders who approved this have just re-committed themselves to the tacit support of a racist, xenophobic, sexist administration and those who support it.

This is not simply about having a Republican official speak at the denomination’s biggest meeting. It’s about this particular administration. This president has engendered particular division among evangelicals and has alienated many black people. A journalist called the steady leak of black members from white evangelical churches a “quiet exodus.” It’s about to get louder.

This move also reinforces the reflexive association of white evangelicalism with Republicanism. I should not be surprised at this move, but it’s still baffling and utterly oblivious.

Last year’s annual meeting featured the alt-right fiasco. This year everyone thought the story would be about the SBC’s #metoo moment. Now they’ve found another way to make things even worse. I will be watching Pence’s speech tomorrow very closely.

White Evangelicals Are Not Holding Their Noses

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The latest Foxnews poll is a thing of beauty. After finding that 74% of white evangelicals approve of Trump (no surprise there) the poll asked a follow-up question: “why do you approve of the job he is doing?” Look at this:

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Most said they approve because of the normal reasons people like any president: the economy is growing, he’s doing a good job, he’s keeping his promises. (That is laugh out loud funny by the way). The pro-life position we’ve heard so much about was cited by 2% of white evangelicals as their reason for approving of his job performance. The margin of error in the poll is bigger than that! Most white evangelicals are not supporting this presidency out of deep pro-life conviction. They like what he is doing in general.

I have an honest and morally serious disagreement with those lonely 2%. Everyone else is just being absurd.

A funny note: the poll also asked people why they disapprove of Trump’s job performance, but the sample size of white evangelicals who disapprove was too small to produce a statistically meaningful result.

Some other white evangelical highlights from the poll:

71% approve of Trump’s handling of immigration. Yeah, zero-tolerance, break up those families, yeah! Sucks to be them! Ha! Get ’em! Losers!

60% have a strongly unfavorable view of Obamacare. Health care is for snowflakes who don’t know how to rely on God.

57% think Russia did not interfere in the 2016 election. Remember, Jesus is truth but all other truths are relative.

Was The Country Ready For Obama?

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Was the country ready for a black president? If Obama advisor Ben Rhodes is to be believed, Obama himself privately wrestled with this question after the 2016 election. Peter Baker reports on Rhodes’ new memoir:

Riding in a motorcade in Lima, Peru, shortly after the 2016 election, President Barack Obama was struggling to understand Donald J. Trump’s victory.

“What if we were wrong?” he asked aides riding with him in the armored presidential limousine.

He had read a column asserting that liberals had forgotten how important identity was to people and had promoted an empty cosmopolitan globalism that made many feel left behind. “Maybe we pushed too far,” Mr. Obama said. “Maybe people just want to fall back into their tribe.”

His aides reassured him that he still would have won had he been able to run for another term and that the next generation had more in common with him than with Mr. Trump. Mr. Obama, the first black man elected president, did not seem convinced. “Sometimes I wonder whether I was 10 or 20 years too early,” he said.

In the weeks after Mr. Trump’s election, Mr. Obama went through multiple emotional stages, according to a new book by his longtime adviser Benjamin J. Rhodes. At times, the departing president took the long view, at other points, he flashed anger. He called Mr. Trump a “cartoon” figure who cared more about his crowd sizes than any particular policy. And he expressed rare self-doubt, wondering whether he had misjudged his own influence on American history.

This is a fascinating window into President Obama’s state of mind after the election. A few thoughts:

1. What does it mean to be “too early”? If the timing of progress is measured by the scale of the backlash to it, then the civil rights movement was too early, and by a lot more than a decade or two. Would it have been better to listen to the white moderates in the 50s and slow down? This isn’t even a question most people consider because it seems obviously wrong. When freedom is not demanded, it is not granted. If we’re thinking about backlash, emancipation was about a century too early! Justice can’t wait for oppressors to change their mind.

In the immediate shock of the backlash I understand why Obama would feel as he did, but this is what change usually looks like. Only after the fact, with the passage of time, do we craft tales of progress out of the chaos and uncertainty through which people actually lived.

2. Still, I continue to be astonished by the preternatural restraint Obama showed throughout his presidency. In the face of the Republican Party’s descent into outright racism and conspiracy theory, how could Obama not wonder, on an emotional level, every single day of his presidency, whether he had arrived too soon? I had profound moral disagreements with President Obama, but he demonstrated a decency and strength of character that is sorely missed.

In this respect I am a staunch social conservative. I have an old-fashioned belief that the moral standards of our entertainers and leaders really matter, not only for their jobs, but for setting an agenda and tone for the entire country. I hate that our popular culture is a cesspool of sex and violence. I hate that pornography is mainstream and acceptable. I hate that our President is an evil man who embodies all these things. I miss President Obama!

3. Obama probably did misjudge his influence on American history, and would have been well-served by more self-doubt throughout his presidency. This was one of his weaknesses.

4. A lot of this isn’t about Obama. We’ve probably underestimated the degree to which sexism played a role in the 2016 election. All else being equal, it seems there are a significant number of Americans who would rather be led by stupid men than competent women.

The Anti-Family Administration

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Immigrants in Texas, May 9. Loren Elliott/Reuters

It’s interesting to imagine how different American politics would be if there was a significant pro-family faction in the Republican Party. A lot of people are under the illusion that there already is such a thing, but maybe you can understand my skepticism:

The number of migrant children held in U.S. government custody without their parents has surged 21 percent in the past month, according to the latest figures, an increase driven by the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” crackdown on families who cross the border illegally.

Although the government has not disclosed how many children have been separated from their parents as a result of the new measures, the Department of Health and Human Services said Tuesday that it had 10,773 migrant children in its custody, up from 8,886 on April 29.

Under the “zero tolerance” approach rolled out last month by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, anyone who crosses into the United States illegally will face criminal prosecution. In most cases, that means parents who arrive with children remain in federal jails while their children are sent to HHS shelters.

Those shelters are at 95 percent capacity, an HHS official said Tuesday, and the agency is preparing to add potentially thousands of new bed spaces in the coming weeks. HHS also is exploring the possibility of housing children on military bases but views the measure as a “last option,” according to the HHS official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the agency’s preparations.

White evangelicals will no doubt cheer this on. It’s not their families on the line, so who cares?

Trump Supporters Can’t Make Credible Moral Claims

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Michael Gerson is at it again:

At the Catholic Prayer Breakfast in Washington, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan said: “We see moral relativism becoming more and more pervasive in our culture. Identity politics and tribalism have grown on top of this.” Ryan went on to talk about Catholic social doctrine, with its emphasis on “solidarity” with the poor and weak, as “a perfect antidote to what ails our culture.”

There is a profound disconnect when a Trump supporter says “moral relativism” and imagines that people of goodwill can believe he is sincere. So Gerson goes in for the kill:

And how did Ryan address the issue of Trump’s habit of dehumanization at the Catholic Prayer Breakfast? By avoidance, under a thick layer of hypocrisy. The Wisconsin Republican complained that politicians are too often in “survival mode” — trying to “get through the day,” rather than reflecting on and applying Catholic social teaching.

Ryan was effectively criticizing the whole theory of his speakership. He has been in survival mode from the first day of Trump’s presidency, making the case that publicly burning bridges with the president would undermine the ability to pursue his vision of the common good (including tax reform and regulatory relief). This, while a weak argument, is at least a consistent one. But by making the Christian commitment to human dignity relative to other political aims, Ryan can no longer speak of “moral relativism” as the defining threat of our time.

It is instructive to think about what moral claim Ryan could have reasonably made. Is there anything he could have said that people of sincere Christian belief could take at face value? Is there any moral principle he could have laid claim to without it ringing hollow? I can’t think of one. I believe that Ryan is sincere in his Catholic faith. We’re all pretty good at living with contradiction. But I find it fascinating that Ryan doesn’t feel a profound sense of shame when he talks about morality in a public setting (or private for that matter). This is what supporting Trump does to you. You become a hypocrite simply by telling your kids to be honest and respectful.

Gerson continues:

My tradition of evangelical Protestantism is, if anything, even worse. According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, white evangelical Protestants are the least likely group in America to affirm an American responsibility to accept refugees. Evangelicals insist on the centrality and inerrancy of scripture and condemn society for refusing to follow biblical norms — and yet, when it comes to verse after verse requiring care for the stranger, they don’t merely ignore this mandate; they oppose it.

This represents the failure of Christian political leadership — not only from the speaker but from most other elected religious conservatives, too. Even more, it indicates the failure of the Christian church in the moral formation of its members, who remain largely untutored in the most important teachings of their own faith.

Christians who are following Trump (by that I mean they feel a strong sense of support and approval for him) are not following Jesus. To love the one is to hate the other. We shouldn’t shrink back from exposing their sin and calling them to repentance. Christians who say we need to work hard to maintain unity in the church in this divisive era are correct in a limited sense, but risk making a serious category error. Trump followers are not engaging in reasonable political behavior; they are separating themselves from Christianity and working to oppress their fellow Christians. It is hard to stay unified with people who do that.