By Alan Bean
In the 1950s and 60s, the unofficial public theology of America was dominated by theologians associated with what we now call “the Protestant Mainline”. A public theology makes biblical teaching relevant to the pressing political, economic and social issues of the day; it gives the Church a public voice.
There was nothing particularly radical about the old public theology, but it gave voice to the “Christian realism” then in vogue. Management and labor should work out their differences amicably. The solution to the “race problem” was understanding and forbearance on all sides. Families and governments should live within their means. That kind of thing.
Those days are gone. America has a new public theology.
Theologians and judicatory officials associated with “the old mainline” denominations are still making the occasional moral pronouncement, but nobody is listening, least of all the folks in Washington. The new public theology is a product of the Religious Right and its central tenets are so well-publicized that there is hardly any need to lay them out. Free markets are God’s way of solving social problems and nothing else works. Ever. The role of government is to protect the nation from its enemies and protecting the free functioning of markets from excessive regulation. Because corporate America creates jobs and leads innovation, labor must bend to the will of management. The new American meritocracy places everyone on a level playing field so accusations of racism and sexism are just whining.
The new public theology begins with economics, moves to politics and ends with religion.
I could elaborate, but you get the idea.
The partial shutdown of the US government is largely a consequence of our new public theology. Obamacare isn’t dismissed as bad public policy; it’s heresy. The free market provides the best of all possible health care systems and anyone who thinks government can make things better has rejected the revealed will of God. When doctrinal purity is at issue, compromise is impossible.
I know what you’re thinking. The new public theology I have described is a minority report that fails to speak for the majority of religious Americans. True enough.
But just ask your average twenty-five year-old what “Christians” think about economics, social policy and the Bible. I suspect you will get something very close to the public theology I have described. Young people might not buy this perspective, and they might even see it as inconsistent with the teaching of Jesus, but it is viewed as the standard Christian view.
Let me get personal. I have two sons who are convinced that most Christians, at least those in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, embrace the new public theology I have described. Moreover, they see my take on Christianity (more on that below) as an odd anomaly. “Dad, nobody else thinks like you,” they tell me.
I submit that this conclusion is common, even standard, among young adults.
This problem is particularly acute for Baptists. “Moderate” Baptists can’t reveal the name of their congregation without appending a long list of disclaimers. “I’m a Baptist,” we say, “but not that kind of Baptist.”
The new public theology is viewed as the normative Christian position by default. Churches that identify with the Religious Right proclaim their public theology with vigor and without apology. Everyone else in the American Christian community is strangely silent. Sure, our well-educated preachers have nice things to say about theological abstractions like justice, love, peace and reconciliation, but they rarely tell us how these virtues impact the economic, political and social life of the nation we live in.
Silence is considered the wise, nuanced approach. “I’m not paid to tell my people how to vote, or how to think on policy issues,” preachers tell one another, “I tell them what the Bible says, and it’s up to them to make the application.”
But “making the application” is what theology is all about. The Religious Right has the ear of the nation because they know what they believe and they spell it out for us. They make the application.
Churches that limp along without a public theology become practically and morally irrelevant to the larger society. They have nothing of substance to say to young adults who are eager (for a brief season) to devote their lives to a larger purpose.
Again, the problem is particularly acute for Baptists. If you’re not that kind of Baptist, then what kind of Baptist are you?
Why have we lost our prophetic voice?
First, there is the problem of the “messy middle”. Most congregations reflect the full ideological spectrum of American life. A pastor preaching to a mix of conservatives, moderates, liberals (and a growing number of libertarians) can’t address social, political or economic issues in a substantive way without enraging and alienating somebody.
Members of messy middle congregations easily assume that “most people in my church think like me”. But let real people start talking about real issues and this perception fades quickly. Why force church members to focus on the ideological divisions within the body, pastors ask.
Having been a pastor, I fully understand the concern. Job security is a valid issue.
Embarrassing theological questions emerge when we are forced to reckon with our diversity. If we are all taking our cue from the same Bible and we’re drawing such different conclusions, who’s got it right and who’s wrong?
More likely, we conclude that the Bible doesn’t have much practical guidance to offer, so we’re all free to make up our own minds. Diversity is hailed as the cardinal virtue.
But our loss of prophetic voice is only partially explained by the messy middle problem. Here’s the deeper truth: we know what Jesus says about money and it doesn’t take a seminary degree to grasp the economic, political and social implications.
We can take refuge in complexity, of course. The Bible is a very big book featuring a long list of authors responding to a crazy quilt of different circumstances. There’s some stuff in Leviticus, Joshua, and Nehemiah that’s hard to square with the Sermon on the Mount. Right?
Right. But if we start with Jesus and the broad biblical tradition that shaped his message, the broad outline of a clear, prophetic theology is clearly discernible.
Our problem isn’t that the message is fuzzy; our problem is that the message is frightening.
If we take our cue from the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord’s Prayer and the Mary’s Magnificat where would that leave us? Outside the camp, on the margins, numbered with the sick, the sinners, the poor and the desperate. We’d have to ask where all these hurting people came from. We’d have to move from charity to advocacy.
Worse still, our churches would be transformed from mainstream bastions of respectability to counterculture communities living on the fringe.
We might gain a prophetic voice, but we would lose almost everything else.
Hence our silence.
But the question won’t go away: if we’re not that kind of Baptists, what kind of Baptists are we?
5 thoughts on “What kind of Baptists are we?”
Some old guy, I think his name was Amos, said a long time ago. “He who is prudent will keep silent in such a time, for it is an evil time.” Old Amos knew what he was talking about, but he was not prudent. He did not keep silent.
I want to make one comment about Obamacare being heresy. True. But the Republicans are off base here. The Affordable Care Act helps people buy private insurance. It has nothing to do with govt. handouts. It is all free enterprise.
What kind of Baptists are we? Good question. I have continued to participate at Broadway Baptist and support it financially because of its efforts to help the poor. However, I have long felt its efforts to help its own members with life’s pains are inadequate. A golfing acquaintance lost his 48 year old daughter to a stroke about a year ago. He told me recently that he and his wife have benefited greatly from the GRIEF SUPPORT group at Fielder Church in Arlington, formerly known as Fielder Road Baptist Church. Checking their website, I note groups to help with aftermath of Divorce along with other life stresses. If we take Jesus seriously, his statement to effect that his followers are recognizable by the way they love one another should realize that pain comes to everyone sooner or later, even people who are well dressed and functional.
It’s a mix. There are subsidies for lower income people. That’s fine – our government, as a democracy, is the vehicle through which we can assist our brothers and sisters. It’s not “The King” of the tribal or Biblical days. It is all of us sharing our resources in a huge and highly diverse economy and society. Charity is for the immediate need to bind the wounds. Justice is served through the law to provided reliable and consistent access to what people need. Jesus worked for justice, not just charity. That is a reasonable balance for us all.
Like Amos, I am not prudent. Like Amos, I sometimes get in trouble for it. Just last week at a men’s meeting one of the men, four or five years older than I, was talking about the government shutdown. He thought it was all Obama’s fault. I practiced prudence and kept silent until he said, “I don’t know anybody that voted for Obama.” I lost my prudence and said, “You’re looking at one.” I held up two fingers and said, “I voted for him twice.” He was dumbfounded. He just assumed that everyone thought like him. For him, the church’s public policy was as Alan described it for the so-called religious right. He wasn’t angry, just amazed. I expect and hope that we will remain friends.
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