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The title of the book that I read was Getting Right with God: Southern Baptists and Segregation 1945-1995 by Mark Newman. Newman introduces the audience to the Southern Baptists by giving a brief history of the Southern Baptist Convention. It is very important to cite the cultural context of a religious group’s history in order to understand its tradition better. The Southern Baptist Convention split with the General Missionary Convention of the Baptist Denomination in 1845 because the organization did not allow slaveholders to become missionaries.1 Newman also notes that he does not look at the SBC through the lens of viewing the South as a whole; rather, he studied SBC history on a state by state basis. From within the 11 former Confederate states, Newman studies opinions from SBC messengers (delegates from individual and local churches to the national SBC), sermons, editorials written by pastors and SBC presidents, and non-binding resolutions adopted by state chapters of the SBC and the SBC itself. 2 The first chapter is about the myths and values that were deeply instilled in both the Baptist and Southern Baptist belief system. Baptists saw evangelism as the primary job of the church, hence the emphasis on missions both home and abroad. Intertwined with the high regard for evangelism in the Southern Baptist church is the myth of the “Lost Cause,” which was used to explain God’s role in the Civil War. The “Lost Cause” theory is based on the premise that even though the Southern States were more righteous than the Union, God used defeat in the
Newman, Mark. Getting Right With God. p. vii Newman, Mark. Getting Right With God. p. viii-vix
Civil War to punish the South for not properly converting the slaves.3 Because of the continued belief that the blacks were not properly converted, blacks were still seen as morally inferior. The “Lost Cause” myth is the root of fear of black miscegenation and rape and is also the foundation that leads to the justification of lynching. Lynching and mob rule were symptoms of anarchy and disorder that contradicted the Southern Baptists’ respect for law and order. But after slavery was abolished and as blacks formed their own churches, the white churches stopped caring about the black dilemma all through the Reconstruction Era until the end of World War II.4 World War II changed race relations here in the United States and worldwide because Adolph Hitler’s maniacal reign forced Americans to examine their own racial attitudes. Progressive voices from within the SBC came from the Women’s Missionary Union, the Christian Life Commission of the SBC, and the seminaries.5 The progressives changed the SBC’s ambivalent attitude toward blacks in three stages: first, they promoted equality within segregation; second, they encouraged compliance with the federal government’s desegregation of public schools after the Brown ruling; lastly, they raised support for the gradual integration efforts after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed.6 It is worthwhile to note that not one single state convention adopted a resolution that condemned the 1964 CRA.7 The third chapter gives a sociological interpretation of SBC race relations. The role that Protestantism, especially the Southern Baptist brand, played in the process of legitimizing segregation was tremendous for a couple of reasons. First, Southern Baptists theologians
Ibid. p. 3 Ibid. p.4 5 Ibid. p.21 6 Ibid. p.22 7 Ibid. p.32
tailored their beliefs to American democracy and ideals of freedom. Southern Baptists generally believed that segregation was a system ordained by God himself and that it was wrong to question God.8 Second, the Baptist emphasis on individual sin rather than corporate immorality, along with the strong emphasis of individual regeneration through Christ made way for the privatization of the church’s responsibility to deal with sin.9 This is why the SBC’s Social Service Commission fought for prohibition in order to prevent the individual demon of alcoholism for the first half of the 20th century rather than deal with the social sin of a racist system. It is interesting that it was actually a different set of Baptist values that set out to undermine the SBC’s silent approval of segregation. Baptists believe whole heartedly in the priesthood of all believers; therefore, it is very important to allow as much freedom as possible for the individual to read Scripture. The best way to do this was to promote 100% literacy through the public education and seminary system. The main opposition to the plausibility structure of segregation came from seminary professors and students.10 Progressives argued that “God was not a respecter of persons” and “hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth.”11 Koinonia Farm “attracted interest of Baptist college and seminary students” because of its call to racial unity and economic equality.12 These students would usually wind up serving on either state chapters’ Baptist Social Service Commissions or the SBC’s Christian Life Commission and would publish articles and adopt resolutions that would not exactly align with the prevailing Southern Baptist opinion of the day.
Ibid. p.48-49 Ibid. p.40-41 10 Ibid. p.66 11 Ibid. p.66 12 Ibid. p. 69
The last half of the book consisted of statistics and quotes made by Southern Baptist officials, commissions, and pastors from 1964 to 1995. The Civil Rights movement forced the citizens of Africa to question Southern Baptist missionaries about their Christianity in relation to the Southern Baptist church being in compliance with American segregation. This questioning persuaded the missionaries to become another source of progressive opinions. Evangelism was the heart of the Southern Baptist Church. Their support for segregation compromised their ultimate goal of converting the African nations to Christianity.13 The Southern Baptist Convention wanted to avoid conflict with the American democratic social order because the SBC was mission-oriented.14 Therefore, the best argument to make segregation unpopular among Southern Baptists was the argument that segregation prevented the missionaries from succeeding in their calling. This combined with the fact that the Roman Catholic Church, along with other “cults,” made Southern Baptists afraid that they were losing influence among the “naturally” Baptist blacks.15 The author refers to much of the integration that has taken place in the Southern Baptist Church as token, with very few black staffers and officers serving the Southern Baptist Convention.16 He also noted the usurpation of power that the small minority of fundamentalists used to push out the progressives; yet in spite of this, the population of black Southern Baptist churches and black membership of Southern Baptist churches grew to all-time highs due in large part to the aggressive campaigns of the biblical inerrantists.17 Critical Evaluation
Ibid. p.137 Ibid. p.149 15 Ibid p. 133 16 Ibid. p.194 17 Ibid. p.202-203
There are several issues in Newman’s book that I would like to examine. The first argument is that there was largely a silent moderate majority who did not act or speak on behalf of black Americans, and therefore the fundamentalists were the ones that always won out. Newman even backs up this claim with surveys that showed that the fundamentalists were the largest contributors to local churches and that the majority of Southern Baptists were against legal segregation but not supportive of integration.18 Newman does not go into detail about how this minority-majority power struggle is related to the Baptist identity. Because Baptist churches are independent and free for the most part, there is a lack of accountability from a denominational standpoint. From my personal experience pastors, deacons, and the laity consistently grab power from each other leading to a fragile infrastructure and an imbalance of alternating authority models between mobocracies (the laity), aristocracies (the deacons), and tyrannies (the pastor). The book gives the example of when deacon Jimmy Carter left for the White House, the other deacons voted 11-1 to ask for the resignation of the pastor who wanted integration while in another chapter Newman gives stories about laity firing pastors over not taking the “correct” stand on the segregation issue.19 The implications of a strong emphasis on church freedom allows for disorder and chaos to ensue. This is what happens when a denomination remains silent on political issues for so long. Silence does not eradicate controversy; only positive, Christian action can bring about consensus and unity. The second issue I want to deal with is Newman’s lack of concern for the Southern Baptist Convention’s and churches’ definition of success. He writes, “Some Baptist
Ibid. p.41, 107 Ibid. p.197
segregationists saw the flourishing commitment of southerners to Christianity, and especially Baptist Christianity, as proof that God favored their devotion to both scriptural teachings and Jim Crow. They detected the Almighty’s blessing in the fact that they were members of America’s largest Protestant denomination and one that was expanding at a time when other American Protestant denominations, ostensibly liberal on race, were losing members.”20 It saddens me that any church, liberal or conservative, would define its success by the fact that they are more numerous than other churches or have a larger budget than neighboring congregations. Jesus Christ taught us to look at things of eternal worth, not of temporal value. Human beings are both physical and spiritual creatures; our spiritual status is not contingent on our exterior looks or our monetary value. It was very hypocritical for the Southern Baptist Church to claim to entirely focus on missions and at the same time condone a mentality that suggested a church’s worth was based on its membership numbers. Evangelism means that we are focused on the things of God and how God transforms our lives. Having large numbers in church does not necessarily mean that there are a lot of lives being transformed; if it did, wouldn’t that have meant that those who experienced regeneration would have been more likely to question the social sin of hatred that plagued America rather than work to maintain the status quo since Christians worship a Loving God? The third issue that I would like to highlight Mark Newman’s lack of organization when it comes to interpreting history. Throughout the book, Newman randomly points out that the Women’s Mission Union played a huge role in showing how Southern Baptists should treat black Americans. He describes how the WMU worked with the National Baptist Convention in
order to train black women how to do home missions21; he discusses the role women played in the movement to ban lynching22; and he tells of how the WMU used its propaganda to try to change Southern Baptist opinion about blacks.23 Yet, he does not go deeply enough to show how the WMU’s work countered the actions of the biblical segregationists. Newman does an excellent job of explaining how World War II changed everything about race relations and how the SBC’s fascination with prohibition prevented the SBC from realizing the larger social ill of racism. Newman does not talk about the large and active role women played in the prohibition movement. I would like to know how many Southern Baptist women were on the frontlines in the campaign for prohibition since that movement was a large concern for all Baptists. I think that it would have been a far more effective book if Newman had organized his arguments according to the prophetic elements of the Southern Baptist Convention who called for racial equality, namely, the WMU, the missionaries, the Christian Life Commission, and the seminarians. He writes the books to show that the Southern Baptists had more variance in opinion about segregation than we realized. He does a fair job of telling the story of the SBC and segregation in chronological order, but the topics and focus in some chapters leave much to be desired. Another example of Newman inserting random facts is his chapter that compares the Southern Baptist convention to other Protestant denominations in the South. The book would have been better if Newman had compared Baptists with other denominations throughout the entire book. Fourthly, I think that the author did not make enough observations about race relations in America and the SBC in the 1980s. All that Newman provides his audience is a commentary on
Ibid. p.6 Ibid. p.9 23 Ibid. p.131
the fundamentalist takeover and their aggressive campaign to recruit blacks. He does not delve into black Baptist preachers such as Jesse Jackson and William H. Gray making a difference in American politics. I don’t think that one can discuss Baptists and the 1980s without at least one of these men. Newman does not talk about the shifting attitudes about race and how the Reagan administration worked to undermine the progress made during the Great Society. It seems as if the author some how starts in 1945, stops in the mid-1970s, and then lands in 1995 when the SBC apologizes for its bigoted past. The 1980s is a very significant decade because the gap between the rich and the poor widened and funding for public education decreased as well because of Reagan’s narrow focus on winning the Cold War. Lastly, I believe that Newman should have dealt with the issue of religious fundamentalism’s role in reacting against the negative effects of modernity. Southern Baptists opposed modernist philosophies such as communism and liberalism because these schools of thought “deified” human beings.24 In addition, liberals and communists promoted ideals that threatened to take away the individual rights that God had provided Southern Baptists in America. Taking these rights away would be, in essence, stealing from God and robbing from His elect. Integration was seen as part of the modernist movement. The Southern Baptist church had been formed over the issue of slavery. Since its foundation was rooted in defending an evil institution, the SBC naturally became home to many segregation apologists. But what does this say about human nature? Are human beings and any institution and social construction that they create ruined by humanity’s total depravity? Or is the SBC, the former Confederacy, and entire American South just so entrenched in an ugly racial history that we have a long ways to go? I think that both are true.
Theological Reflection The opinions of the various Southern Baptists that Newman records in this book challenged my perspective about God’s role as Creator. I believe that God is the One Source of all life; therefore, all human beings are created equal because we were created by the same God. Biblical segregationists claimed to believe that the entire Bible was the inerrant Word of God but they ignored the Scriptures in the Old Testament that commanded the Israelites to be kind to their neighbors and provide reparations for their fellow countrymen who were slaves as well as the passages in the New testament when Jesus Christ redefined “neighbors” and countrymen as anyone who has mercy to strangers, foes, and friends alike.25 The Bible is the inerrant Word of God only by God’s standards as defined in the Bible; human applications to inerrancy can not be held as valid unless they line up with God’s standard. Every act that Jesus Christ did, every miracle that He performed, and every parable He told that is described in the Bible is a part of God’s divine revelation. The precedent that Jesus set by speaking and empathizing with a woman of a different race (the Samaritan woman) shows that God is opposed to racial bigotry because human outside appearances are not the final standard by which souls are going to be judged; Jesus Christ is going to judge each individual soul according to God’s standards, and not anthropocentric ideals “for man looks at the outward appearance but God looks at the heart.”26 We can only know God’s standards by studying and meditating on the Bible. Segregation was a system that was no better than communism and liberalism. Segregation deified human beings because of the color of their skin. The very reason that Southern Baptists opposed communism and liberalism is the same one that kept America
Holy Bible, NIV. Leviticus 25 and Luke 10:25-37 Holy Bible, NIV. 1st Samuel 16:7
segregated! Whites were legally made the lords over the blacks’ lives rather than Jesus Christ. American whites had effectively replaced the God of the Bible with themselves; being a “real” Christian meant being a white, male Protestant. I believe that the Church Universal, every denomination including the Southern Baptists, needs to come to a consensus about what being a Christian really means, and that is making Jesus Christ the Lord of our lives, loving others, caring for the poor and needy, and standing up against every sin, whether it is an individual vice or social ill, that contradicts the Bible. This is what John Calvin meant when he preached about the perseverance of the saints. Works Cited Holy Bible, New International Version. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1984. Newman, Mark. Getting Right With God: Southern Baptists and Desegregation 1945-1995. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2001.
BRITE DIVINITY SCHOOL TEXAS CHRISTIAN UNIVERSITY FORT WORTH, TEXAS
BOOK REVIEW: Getting Right With God: Southern Baptists and Desegregation 1945-1995 BRITE DIVINITY SCHOOL
SURVEY OF CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY FROM BAPTIST PERSPECTIVES CHTH 70113 SEPTEMBER 27, 2005 RODNEY ALPHONSO THOMAS JR.
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