What Happened to the Southern Baptists?
by Laurence M. Vance
by Laurence M. Vance
"We can see no just ground for the enormous military and naval establishment now being built up and maintained by our government."
~ Southern Baptist Convention, 1936
"We express pride and strong support for our American military."
~ Southern Baptist Convention, 2004
What happened to the Southern Baptists?
The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is the largest Protestant denomination in the United States. The annual meeting of the SBC was held this year in San Antonio, Texas, on June 12 and 13. President Bush addressed the crowd of thousands of messengers via satellite with a nine-minute speech on the closing day "to multiple lengthy applauses and standing ovations," according to Baptist Press, the official news agency of the SBC.
Although he is not a Southern Baptist, Bush has addressed the SBC annual meeting, either by satellite or videotape, every year since 2002. The only exception was last year, when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is also not a Southern Baptist, spoke to the SBC messengers in person in Greensboro, North Carolina, because Bush made a secret trip to Iraq during the time of the SBC annual meeting in 2006.
I also appreciate the fact that Southern Baptists are supporting our brave men and women in uniform, and their families. I know you pray for their safety as they defend our people and extend the hope of freedom to the oppressed across the globe. I appreciate the fact you've sent care packages, and tend to the spiritual needs as military chaplains or kneel in prayer. I thank you as you support those who volunteer to serve our nation.
If the president were honest, he would have thanked the pastors at the annual meeting for supplying cannon fodder for the state in the form of their young men that they encouraged to join the military.
Southern Baptists have been some of the greatest supporters of Bush and his war. Richard Land, head of the SBC's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, "the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention," is the author of the infamous "Land Letter" to President Bush in October of 2002 which agreed that Bush's "policies concerning the ongoing international terrorist campaign against America are both right and just," and that Bush's "stated policy concerning using military force if necessary to disarm Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction is a just cause." The letter was also signed by other warvangelical, Republican Party operatives like Chuck Colson, Bill Bright, and D. James Kennedy.
And just recently, LifeWay Christian Resources (Southern Baptist) and Holman Bible Outreach International (an entity of LifeWay) joined with Task Force Patriot USA to sponsor a Memorial Day weekend tribute to active duty U.S. troops, veterans, and their families at Georgia's Stone Mountain Park. The tribute was called "Task Force Patriot Salute to the Troops." One of the many "military and civilian motivational speakers" was Bobby Welch, a former president of the SBC and a decorated Vietnam War veteran.
What was different about the SBC annual meeting this year is that there was no resolution passed expressing an opinion or concern about the president, the military, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the war on terrorism. However, this does not mean that the messengers to the SBC annual meeting are now anti-war activists. None of the pro-war/pro-military resolutions issued from 2002 to 2006 were repudiated in a resolution like the 1996 resolution that apologized to Blacks for "condoning and/or perpetuating individual and systemic racism in our lifetime."
In 2006 a resolution was passed "On Prayer for The President and The Military," which states in part that whereas:
- Our nation is currently engaged in a global war on terrorism, and our military is fighting against a determined and fanatical enemy that is threatening the liberty and security of our nation and of the world; and
- The determined efforts of President George W. Bush and the sacrificial actions of our military personnel have resulted in Afghanistan, formerly under an oppressive regime, and Iraq, formerly under a brutal dictatorship, holding free and democratic elections and developing their own constitutional governments;
It is resolved:
- That we also express our appreciation for the military chaplains, who encourage service personnel to seek God in prayer;
- That we encourage all Southern Baptists to pray without ceasing for the president and all of our military personnel, especially those who are serving in areas of great danger (1 Thessalonians 5:17);
- That we not only continue praying for all our military families, but that we also continue ministering to them in the name of Jesus, especially those grieving families of military personnel who have paid the ultimate price for our national freedom, remembering that Jesus laid down His life for us and paid the ultimate price for our spiritual freedom (John 15:13).
In 2005 a resolution was passed "On Appreciation of Our Troops and President," which states in part that whereas:
- Members of the United States military and allied forces continue to be aggressively engaged in the ongoing global war on terror;
- Our troops play a vital role in preserving and protecting freedom in the United States and throughout the world;
- The sacrificial efforts of our military personnel have made it possible for some nations formerly ruled by dictators to hold democratic elections, ushering in a new era of freedom for the people of those nations;
It is resolved:
- That the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Nashville, Tennessee, June 21—22, 2005, express appreciation to our servicemen and servicewomen in all branches of the military who are serving faithfully and honorably, both at home and abroad;
- That we encourage Southern Baptists to pray for the safety and well-being of our military personnel at all times;
- That we express pride and strong support for our American military and eagerly anticipate the day our troops return home upon successful completion of their missions;
- That we express deepest gratitude and respect for our president in light of the gravity of the decisions he must make and the leadership role he fills;
- That we encourage all Southern Baptists to pray regularly for our president and to stand with him in opposing global terrorism as he makes decisions that potentially impact the entire earth.
In 2004 a resolution was passed "On Appreciation of Our American Military," which states in part that whereas:
- Members of the United States military serve our country faithfully, both at home and abroad, maintaining peace throughout the world, and are aggressively engaged in the global war on terror;
- Each of our service personnel plays a vital role in preserving freedom in the United States and throughout the world;
- Each American service man and woman is called upon to protect and preserve the freedom we hold dear;
It is resolved:
- That the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Indianapolis, Indiana, June 15—16, 2004, express appreciation to our service men and women in all branches of the military who are serving faithfully and honorably, both at home and abroad;
- That we encourage Southern Baptists to pray for the safety and well-being of our military personnel at all times, with particular attention to those who are in harm's way;
- That we express pride and strong support for our American military.
In 2003 a resolution was passed "On the Liberation of Iraq," which states in part that whereas:
- The Iraqi people have suffered for decades under the oppressive and autocratic regime of Saddam Hussein;
- The Iraqi regime was marked by repression, intimidation, mass murder, and extreme hostility to the most basic human rights of its people;
- Saddam Hussein repeatedly defied the demands of the international community to verify Iraqi compliance with United Nations resolutions against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction;
- We believe Operation Iraqi Freedom was a warranted action based upon historic principles of just war;
It is resolved:
- That the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Phoenix, Arizona, June 17—18, 2003, affirm President George W. Bush, the United States Congress, and our armed forces for their leadership in the successful execution of Operation Iraqi Freedom;
- That we commend the valiant and sacrificial service of the men and women of our armed forces and the ministry of our chaplains;
- That we call on Southern Baptists to pray for our troops and our diplomatic leaders as they aid in the rebuilding of the nation of Iraq;
In 2002 a resolution was passed "On the War on Terrorism," which states in part that whereas:
- Following the ruthless and wicked attack on America on September 11, 2001, our nation was forced to respond in self-defense with a war on international terrorism;
- It has become increasingly clear that a vast, international terrorist network exists, which is allied with regimes that sponsor and support its evil goals;
- Terrorist groups and their state sponsors threaten to continue their assault on innocent people and to escalate this terror through the use of instruments of mass destruction — including chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons;
It is resolved:
- That the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in St. Louis, Missouri, June 11—12, 2002, declare our abhorrence of these horrific acts of international terrorism;
- That we applaud the moral clarity of the President of the United States in his denunciation of terrorist groups as "evildoers" who must be resisted;
- That we wholeheartedly support the actions of the United States government, its intelligence agencies, and its military, in the just war against the terrorist networks and their state sponsors;
- That we urge our President, our congressional leaders, and our military authorities, in a renewed spirit of American unity, to address the growing threat of terrorist-supportive nations and the vicious quest to attain weapons of mass destruction;
What happened to the Southern Baptists?
None of the resolutions having anything to do with war or the military issued by the Southern Baptists at their annual meeting since they began the practice in 1845 read anything like the resolutions on those subjects passed since 2002. Even when the United States was fighting "real wars," the SBC was a voice for peace and against militarism.
During the midst of the so-called Civil War, although a resolution was passed in 1863 which expressed support for the Confederacy and the "just and necessary war," the Southern Baptists also stated that they deplored "the dreadful evils of the war" and that they earnestly desired peace. They further acknowledged that their "sins have deserved the terrible calamities that God has sent upon us."
The Southern Baptists passed no resolutions related to the president, the war, or the military during the Spanish-American War or its aftermath.
In 1907 a resolution on world peace was passed which resolved:
That we look with devout gratitude to Almighty God upon the advance throughout the wide world of the cause of peace, for "Peace hath her victories no less renowned than war"; and we desire and will pray for the day to hasten when all nations will settle their difficulties by arbitration rather than the resort to arms; and the song of the angels at the advent of Christ be fully realized — "Peace on earth, good will to men."
In 1911 another resolution on peace was issued which not only stated that "no good nor satisfactory reasons can be found for war between civilized and Christian nations," but also that "war is a scourge, is wrong in principle and morally corrupting." It was resolved that "as Southern Baptists we will talk up peace and talk down war; that we will pray God for universal peace."
After the United States entered World War I in 1917, although the Southern Baptists passed a resolution which resolved that they "pledge to our President and government, our prayers, our loyal and sacrificial support in the war in which we are engaged," the same resolution also stated that "there has come upon earth a spirit which has plunged the nations that have been considered foremost in the lines of advancing civilization into a war more ruthless and more destructive of human life and human happiness than the world has ever before known." Three things were then resolved:
- That we deeply deplore this awful and sorrowful calamity which has caused these leading nations to drench the earth in the precious blood of their own loyal citizens.
- That we reaffirm our faith in the righteousness of the Sermon on the Mount, and our confidence and infallible wisdom of him who has taught us to love our enemies, to bless them that curse us, and to do good to them that despitefully use and persecute us.
- That we desire a stronger faith in the God who maketh wars to cease even unto the ends of the earth, and we shall rejoice if our own people, and all of every name who love the Lord Jesus Christ, in sincerity, shall find it in their hearts to pray for kings and for all that are in authority that we may live quiet and peaceable lives in all godliness and honesty.
After the Great War, a resolution on peace and disarmament was issued in 1921 which, after recognizing that "the matter of the reconstruction of the world upon a permanent peace basis, is the supreme question of the present," resolved "that, as a Convention of Christians, we are glad to join other bodies in an endorsement of this seemingly, practical movement toward disarmament with the hope and prayer that our torn and bleeding world may be restored to peace under the guidance and benediction of the Prince of Peace."
In 1929 a Social Service Committee Recommendation was adopted which resolved:
That we approve and commend the action of the United States Senate in ratifying the multilateral Briand-Kellogg Peace Treaty; that we rejoice in the outlawry of war embodied in this treaty; that we condemn recourse to war for the solution of international controversies and we pledge our support to the government in this renouncement of war and in seeking by every worthy and legitimate means to promote and maintain permanent international peace.
In 1932 another Social Service Committee Recommendation was adopted which resolved:
That we oppose the continued large expenditure by the Government for military and naval equipment; that we oppose military training in the schools and colleges, whether denominational or state; and that we favor full and complete disarmament as rapidly as it can possibly be accomplished, except such armament as may be absolutely necessary for police duty within our own territory and on our borders. Moreover, we reaffirm our hearty approval of the international agreement to renounce war as a national policy and our gratitude at the growing conviction among Christians of the incompatibility of war with the ethical principles of our Lord Jesus Christ.
In 1933 the first of several major peace resolutions was issued. Among other things, it resolved:
- That we pledge anew our devotion to the cause of International Good Will and World Peace and that we urge upon our pastors and people the obligations of their stewardship, both as the advocates and as the exemplars of the spirit of peace and good will toward all men.
- That we again declare our unwavering belief that the United States Senate ought to ratify without further delay the protocol of the International Court of Justice, commonly known as the World Court, so that our government may have official representation on that Court and may contribute directly and officially to the maintenance and promotion of World Peace. This has been recommended repeatedly by several Presidents, has been concurred in by each of the major political parties, and is demanded we believe by a great majority of the American people. We can see no sound reason for continued delay by the Senate and we urge prompt action.
Another was issued in 1935, which resolved:
- That we hereby declare our unalterable opposition to war and our devotion to the maintenance of peace among the nations of the world.
- That we approve of the investigation of the operations and methods of armament and munition manufacturers, conducted by a committee of the United States Senate headed by Senator Nye, with a view to formulating legislation which shall end the military racket and take the profit out of war; we desire to see this investigation carried to completion and to see it result in appropriate and effective legislation.
A major statement on war, peace, and the military was published in 1936. Its five points were:
- That we reaffirm our belief in and devotion to international peace and to the spirit of peace both for individuals and nations as embodied in the teachings and exemplified by the spirit of Christ our Lord.
- That we reaffirm also our utter opposition to and hatred of war as the most inexcusable and insane policy that could be pursued by the nations of the earth in their dealings with one another, destructive not only of human life and treasure but of all that is high and worthy in human ideals and objectives.
- That we pledge ourselves as citizens and Christians that we will not support our government in any war except such as might be necessary to repel invasion of our land or to preserve fundamental human rights and liberties.
- That we can see no just ground for the enormous military and naval establishment now being built up and maintained by our government at the expense of approximately one billion dollars a year, and that we look with disfavor both upon this establishment as being in the nature of a challenge to other countries and contributing to the war spirit and upon the huge and unnecessary tax burden laid upon the shoulders of people already overburdened with taxation.
- That we again express our belief that the Protocol of the Court of International Justice, commonly known as the World Court, with the reservations already made by the United States Senate, should be ratified by the Senate and that we all give our influence to that end.
In a 1937 resolution on war and peace, it was first stated:
- That we believe that the great world powers having outlawed war by treaty and having committed themselves to the policy of the peaceful settlement of all international disagreements can and ought to find solution of all their problems without the arbitrament of arms.
- As citizens of the United States we will do everything possible to keep our nation out of war, and we reaffirm our opposition to all aggressive war at home or aboard.
And then it was resolved, regarding international relationships:
- We recognize that a warless world is the Christian ideal and that we Christians should throw all our weight and power into the balance for peace.
- That we petition the President of the United States to consider the advisability of calling a conference of world powers to consider the possibility of disarmament, believing that this would do much to relieve strained international relationships which are endangering world peace at the present time.
A resolution was issued in 1939 that expressed a "deep sense of regret and dissatisfaction with the large part American manufacturers and merchants are having in the revolting, inhuman and barbaric invasion and spoliation of China by Japan." The messengers to the 1939 SBC annual meeting were "especially concerned over the fact that Americans are sharing so largely in this unholy work and without interference by the American Government." The members of the SBC churches were enjoined to "write to their representatives in both Houses of Congress, earnestly urging action to stop American participation in this war of conquest." And regarding international relations, the messengers pledged themselves "anew to the spirit of peace and to the cultivation of that spirit among our people and in our relation to all other peoples." It was even suggested that SBC churches set up and maintain peace committees "for the dissemination of information and the cultivation of the spirit of peace."
After World War II had begun in Europe, a strong anti-war statement was issued in June of 1940 which, among other things, resolved:
- That we hereby express our utter abhorrence of war as an instrument of International policy and our profound conviction and belief that all International differences could and of a right ought to be composed by peaceful diplomatic exchanges, and, when these fail, by arbitration.
- That the continued sacrifice of human treasure and human blood in International war is a wanton and wicked waste for which nations, and particularly their rulers who declare and prosecute war, must give an account to the All Wise and All Just Judge of all the earth.
- That the extremes of human slaughter to which the present mechanized war has gone staggers human belief and is a sad illustration of how all scientific knowledge and development, which should contribute only to human welfare, can be debased and devoted to human destruction.
- That while we acknowledge the right of national self-defense, our utter abhorrence of war and its attendant evils compels us to voice the conviction that even a defensive war should be waged only as a last resort after every effort has been made to reach a settlement of international problems in fairness to all the nations involved.
Also included was a lengthy statement about supporting conscientious objectors:
Baptists have always believed in liberty of conscience and have honored men who were willing to brave adverse public opinion for the sake of conscientious scruples. A considerable number of members of churches of our Convention, through their interpretation of the moral teachings of Christ, have reached the position of a conscientious objection to war that prohibits them from bearing arms.
The Convention ought to accord to them the right of their convictions as it accords to others the right to differ from them, and ought to protect them in that right to the extent of its ability. Therefore,
Be it RESOLVED, That the Convention go on record as recognizing such right of a conscientious objection, and that the Convention instruct the Executive Committee to provide facilities for their registration with the denomination, in order that the Executive Committee may be able to make accurate certification to the government concerning them at any time it should be called for.
Included in this 1940 resolution was also this notable closing statement:
Because war is contrary to the mind and spirit of Christ, we believe that no war should be identified with the will of Christ. Our churches should not be made agents of war propaganda or recruiting stations. War thrives on and is perpetuated by hysteria, falsehood, and hate and the church has a solemn responsibility to make sure there is no black out of love in time of war. When men and nations are going mad with hate it is the duty of Christ's ministers and His churches to declare by spirit, word, and conduct the love of God in all men. In time of war it is our Christian responsibility to prepare for peace. We would, therefore, urge our churches to think and work toward a Christian social order in which a just and lasting peace can be realized.
On the eve of U.S. involvement in World War II, the longest peace resolution the Southern Baptists ever published was issued in 1941. At this meeting in Birmingham, Alabama, it was resolved:
- That we declare our abhorrence of war and all its insanity and brutality. We are a peace-loving people and we know of no issues, national or international, which could not be settled in fairness and equity by the orderly processes of civilized society if only the leaders of the nations were willing to practice the principles of justice, truth, and righteousness. We sincerely believe that the rank and file of our denomination, even as the rank and file of our nation and the other nations as well, much prefer that all international disputes and conflicting interests be composed by the processes of peace rather than by the arbitrament of war.
- That with one accord we turn to Almighty God, through Christ his Son, in humble petition for the forgiveness of whatever measure of corporate guilt may be ours with regard to the present international conflict, and, that our nation, through repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ may be so yielded to the Divine Plan, that we may be effectively used in helping to bring to the nations of the world a just and righteous peace.
- That we invite the membership of our churches and all Christian believers throughout the world, to pray daily at a given hour, both in public and in private places, to the end that such a "just and righteous peace" may be speedily achieved.
The messengers to this SBC annual meeting made a pledge
as Christian patriots to pray earnestly unto our God and Saviour that a righteous peace may soon be granted unto all the warring nations: that our own nation may be spared the horrors of war, if that be the divine will, and that our nation may be used as a mighty instrument of peace and truth and righteousness and brotherhood; that Almighty God will, in the power of his might, take charge of the nations and overrule their folly and sin to the praise of his great and holy name.
It was also recognized that "there may be honest differences of opinion about the issue in the present conflict, but we are deeply resolved that any difference shall not cause any breach in our fellowship." Contrast this attitude with that of the modern Christian Right. In some circles, if one opposes Bush and his war then he is said to part of the "blame-America-first crowd," and ridiculed with epithets like traitor, defeatist, defeatocrat, appeaser, communist, liberal, Quaker, pacifist, and peacenik.
Because this resolution mentioned the evils that were then occurring in the world, desired the U.S. government "to work out the wisest and most effective means to aid England, our national ally, in this titanic struggle," and urged the government "to quicken rather than slacken all measures needed to strengthen the defenses of the Western Hemisphere against all kinds of aggression from any and all powers which seek to undermine and to overthrow our peaceful and democratic ways of life," a clarifying statement was added disavowing militarism: "The aforesaid resolution may be misinterpreted by some as a committal to the principle of militarism, Therefore, be it resolved that the aforesaid resolution, in no way commits the Southern Baptist Convention to an approval of war, as a recognized principle in settling international differences."
Although the United States entered World War II at the end of 1941, the Southern Baptists throughout the war issued no resolutions expressing support for the president or the troops. Surprisingly, there was no resolution having anything to do with the war that was published in 1942 and 1945. In 1943, although it was acknowledged that "Southern Baptists as loyal citizens of the United States are cooperating and participating in all branches of the present war, including the Army, the Navy and the Air Corps," it was also stated that "the prosecution of the war for the maintenance, perpetuation and extension of the four freedoms, well known and enjoyed by American citizens in our Constitutional Democracy, may not accomplish the purposes for which it is fought, unless a just and righteous peace follows the termination of the war." In 1944, instead of expressing support for the troops, the Convention resolved to support conscientious objectors working in civilian camps under the supervision of the National Service Board.
Between World War II and the Vietnam War, the Southern Baptists issued numerous resolutions that advocated world peace, reaffirmed the basic incompatibility of war with the moral principles and purposes of Christianity, denounced the moral conditions in American military camps abroad, condemned militarism, expressed support for conscientious objectors and exempting religious teachers from conscription, and expressed opposition to peacetime conscription, not only in the United States, but worldwide.
After the escalation of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, peace resolutions were issued during the years from 1966 to 1973. And instead of putting out resolutions during the Vietnam years in appreciation of the president and the troops, support for conscientious objectors was reaffirmed. In 1969 a resolution was issued which stated that "those who for reasons of religious conviction are opposed to military service should be exempted from forced military conscription." In 1972 the Southern Baptists acknowledged support for "both our youth who, as a matter of conscience, choose to participate in war and those who, as a matter of conscience, object to participation in war, extending them assistance in exercising their rights and privileges as permitted under law."
The Southern Baptists issued another peace resolution in 1974. In 1977 an anti-torture resolution was issued that condemned "any use of torture as a sin against God and a crime against humanity." It was further affirmed that "torture demonstrates the very opposite of love and violates the will of God revealed in Jesus Christ." It is too bad that no such resolution was produced after the Abu Ghraib scandal. Various resolutions supporting arms control were issued by the Southern Baptists from 1978 to 1983.
Things began to change in 1991. You will recall that that was the year in which the United States invaded Iraq the first time. Although the war had ended long before the SBC annual meeting in June, a resolution was still issued which resolved:
- That we the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, June 4-6, 1991, commend and salute the President of the United States as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the commanders in the field, and the men and women of every military rank for their preparedness and resolve, their commitment to duty and to country, their fortitude in the face of danger, and their overwhelming victory in Operation Desert Storm;
- That we especially honor those who died in the conflict for their ultimate sacrifice in the cause of freedom and that we offer our heartfelt sympathy and gratitude to their families;
- That we express reverent thanksgiving to Almighty God, the Judge of all nations, who is mightier than all armies and who alone is able to save, for His guidance, His mercy, and His blessing on our nation in Operation Desert Storm.
What happened to the Southern Baptists? Their overwhelming support for the U.S.-initiated Persian Gulf War shows that they fully accepted the government's new enemy after the end of the Cold War: Saddam Hussein. Thus began their descent down the slippery slope of militarism, presidential aggrandizement, and statolatry. The transformation was made complete in 2001.
What happened to the Southern Baptists? The events of September 11, 2001, apparently "changed everything." Yet, after the fiasco that is the war in Iraq has been scrupulously exposed many times over, no change in opinion has been forthcoming from the SBC. Instead, the man most responsible for the war is welcomed with applause and ovation. But there is one thing that the events of September 11th didn't change — the reckless, belligerent, and meddling U.S. foreign policy responsible for the blowback we suffered on that date, and will inevitably experience again since our militaristic, interventionist foreign policy likewise shows no sign of changing.
August 13, 2007
Laurence M. Vance [send him mail] writes from Pensacola, FL. He is the author of Christianity and War and Other Essays Against the Warfare State. His latest publication is War, Foreign Policy, and the Church. Visit his website.
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