President Carter has announced his break with the Southern Baptist
Convention, on grounds that its leadership is too doctrinal "rigid"
and its top people are too "exclusionary of accommodating those
who differ from them." This is all code, of course. It means
that the Southern Baptists aren’t updating themselves fast enough
to adopt politically correct attitudes, particularly toward women
in ministerial and other leadership roles.
the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution saying that
women should be submissive to their husbands. They have frowned
on women "deacons," laypeople who the administer individual
churches, controlling finances and hiring and firing the staff.
It's not that the Baptists have changed. They are merely holding
to tradition, and reinforcing it against attacks from within and
without. What these people want is to sever what remains of links
to the past.
has Carter suddenly decided to stop his association after these
years? His purpose is bound up with politics. As in every Southern
state, there is an active struggle taking place in Georgia for the
control of the governing board of the state convention. Carter's
break is designed to somehow embarrass and punish the conservative
faction that is winning. Hence, the press is telling us that this
is a big blow to the Southern Baptists. Having lost the favor of
their most famous member, they can expect marginalization and a
fall in membership. When the opposite happens, as it will, it won't
the press is hiding is the actually relationship between Carter
and his denomination. It wasn't that Carter brought Baptists credibility;
as a candidate and president, he never let anyone forget that he
was not a deracinated leftist but a Humble Sunday School Teacher,
a Southerner who holds deeply conservative values.
the old days, the press liked the association because it helped color
the alien political philosophy he represented as one that should
be acceptable to the mainstream. Meanwhile, many Southern Baptists,
my late father among them, feared that their beloved denomination
was being tarnished by association with his brand of politics. His break,
then, is a sign that he sees his political ideology as more important
than his religion. In fact, visitors to his much-vaunted Sunday
School class report that it consists of little more than egalitarian
harangues wrapped in the language of the Gospel.
he will continue his membership in his church, the Maranatha Baptist
Church of Plains, Georgia. How is this possible? Well, there's no
question that Maranatha approves of his staying. Whereas most Baptist
Churches have motto like “A Caring Community that Loves Jesus,”
Maranatha's motto is “Church
Home of Jimmy Carter”. The site’s FAQs include “Will I be able
to take a picture of the Carters?” and “Can I get an autograph?”
(Answer: no). In fact, the only link on the website that fails to
highlight Carter's membership is the one linking to the weather.
the New York Times tells us that Maranatha is one of those
progressive Southern Baptist Churches that permit women to be servers
and “would not have any problem” with a woman pastor – provided,
presumably, that Carter approves. The real question is why Maranatha
continues to stay within the Southern Baptist Convention. And here
we come to the peculiar facet of this denomination that only insiders
can fully understand. Individual churches govern themselves and
make contributions to the general fund which pays for seminaries,
publications, and universities.
matters, the Southern Baptists have no creed to which the
members churches must swear allegiance. And part of Baptist doctrine
prescribes that individual believers themselves are the only true
judge of the meaning of the Bible, which all sides agree is the
one authoritative document. This is why all public struggles within the
Baptist church take place on the terrain of the proper method for
understanding what the Bible is ("inerrant" and in what
respect?) and means ("literal" and to what extent?).
is also common for the minority sect within the Baptists to claim
that the majority is attempting to centralize control in a manner
inconsistent with traditional Baptist practice. For example, Carter
claimed in his statement that he feared that the conservatives were
going to impose their beliefs at the expense of the autonomy of
local churches. But this is just subterfuge, since no one doubts
that if the liberals gained control, they would do the same, imposing tyranny not in the name of orthodoxy but, more perversely, in the name of “tolerance.”
this is only what you see on the surface. Underneath, the Southern
Baptists are governed by deep and unstated cultural assumptions
about which, recently, there have emerged huge differences between
the left and the right. The left adopts all the fashionable attitudes
favored by the media: sexual equality, moral permissiveness, higher
criticism of the Bible, and open embrace of various worldly
pleasures and left-wing politics. Meanwhile, the conservatives are struggling to hang onto
some form of traditional belief and practices, among which is the
idea that the division of labor applies in the relations between
the sexes. Churches should be led by men, specifically the leading
men who pay the bills, while the women care for the educational
and social life of the church.
The idea of the division of labor is entirely lost on people who criticize this traditional system. Carter, for example, says that “I personally feel the Bible says all people are equal in the eyes of God,” from which he deduces that “women should play an absolutely equal role in service of Christ in the church.” In this line of reasoning, then, we see the same egalitarian logic that transformed political rights into a totalitarian system of quotas and all-round regimentation. The only way to bring about “equal roles” is through a system of command and control that most men and many women will never accept. Because churches are voluntary institutions, they collapse when people don’t conform.
long as the conservatives maintain control, this denomination will
be one of the few that hasn't entirely sold out to pressure to permit
total female domination of the church. As Leon Podles explains in
his brilliant book, The
Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity (Spence
1999), key aspects of the Christian faith call for feminine virtues
like humility, charity, and turning the other cheek. In order to
attract and maintain a male membership, the church must create protected
all-male domains that emphasize male traits like management and
these too are given over to women – as they have been in all
mainline churches – the men lose interest and decide to go
hunting or play golf instead of slog to church to be bossed around
by women. The revenue dries up and you end up with the empty shells
of formerly vibrant mainline churches dotting the landscape of every
major American city.
recall the first time that my Baptist mother visited my Catholic
parish, she left utterly scandalized. It wasn’t the statues and
the Holy Water that pushed her over the edge. It was the women collecting
the offering, the women reading the scriptures, the women leading
the music, the women distributing communion.
you can stand it, Jeff?"
what, Mom?" I asked.
church has been entirely taken over by women. They are everywhere,
which means that they are running it from top to bottom. I would
never stand for this," she said. "It is revolting."
Mom, even with this, people say the Catholic Church is sexist because
priesthood is all male"
priests are clearly just front men. I would bet that they do exactly
what the women tell him to do. Give it time: these women will run
all men out of the priesthood too. Once they gain control, they
will not be satisfied until they turn the whole church into an all-female
points. One priest I know has stood up to it, and, as a result,
was unceremoniously removed from several parishes until he was finally
assigned to prison ministry.
anecdote: in the 1980s, I attended lecture at the John Paul II Institute
in Washington, D.C.. A cleric with a towering intellect pronounced
firmly on a huge range of issues, advancing tough-as-nails opinions
on every aspect of doctrine and discipline. No simpering at all:
it was magnificently rigid, exclusionary, manly.
then a feminist rose to complain about the marginalization of women
in liturgy and leadership in the Catholic church today. The speaker
collapsed in fear, and answered her by mouthing a litany of cliches
about sexual equality and decrying past Church practices for being
insufficiently open to the contributions of women to the faith.
His cowering was embarrassing. Even if you knew nothing else about
the Catholic Church today, you could tell a lot just by observing
the Baptists resist until the end of time. With Jimmy Carter out
of the convention, it may become easier.
writes from Auburn, Alabama.