Former 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.
Specifically, 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.
Why 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 be reported.
What 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.
In 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.
Oddly, 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.
Moreover, 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.
Complicating 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?).
It 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.”
But 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.
So 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 discipline.
When 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.
I 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.
"How you can stand it, Jeff?"
"Stand what, Mom?" I asked.
"Your 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."
"But Mom, even with this, people say the Catholic Church is sexist because the priesthood is all male"
"Your 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 club."
Interesting 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.
Another 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.
And 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 this behavior.
May the Baptists resist until the end of time. With Jimmy Carter out of the convention, it may become easier.
October 24, 2000
Jeffrey Tucker writes from Auburn, Alabama.