Southern Baptists have walked a long and winding road on the subject of race. In the 1950s, SBC conservatives like WA Criswell, pastor of the 20,000 member First Baptist Church Dallas, denounced the civil rights movement as a communist enterprise. Criswell denounced the Suprme Court as a “bunch of infidels” following the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954.
But by the mid-1960s, Criswell was confessing to a “colossal mistake” and admitting that his take on race relations had been deeply flawed. This bold admission made it possible for other conservative Southern Baptists to hop on the racial harmony express by denouncing racial prejudice and inviting black pastors to speak in their churches once a year.
Every year, Southern Baptists passed high-sounding pro civil rights decrees drafted by the denomination’s Christian Life Commission. At the congregational level, conditions were far more complicated, of course. Pastors and leading lay leaders didn’t shift from animosity to embrace in a mere decade. On the other hand, they didn’t oppose the denominational rush to the center on the race issue. Colorblind orthodoxy was too void of content to warrant strenuous opposition.
One might have expected that the SBC enthusiasm for civil rights would cool significantly after the nation’s largest Protestant denomination sent its moderate minority into wilderness exile in the 1980s and 90s. Nothing of the sort. In fact, the denomination’s new opinion leaders have made a point of apologizing for slavery and speaking appreciatively of civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King.
Bob Allen’s piece on Richard Land, president of the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, helps us understand this perspective. Instead of denouncing civil rights leaders as crypto-communists, Southern Baptist leaders are arguing that they are facing essentially the same oppressive forces men like King confronted half a century ago.
Land makes much of the fact that King’s famous letter to southern white clergy was composed from a prison cell. If Barack Obama’s opposition to religious liberty continues unabated, Land suggests, Christian men and women of Christian conscience may soon be dragged off to prison for refusing to bend the knee to Caesar.
This is a very clever argument, especially in the wake of the Obama administration’s tone-deaf decision to force Catholic hospitals to provide contraceptive services. This is a tough issue. Catholic hospitals, after all, service non-Catholics. On the other hand, common sense militates against forcing anyone to go against conscience in order to stay in business. Men like Richard Land can argue that his Catholic friends are being oppressed for their faith just as King et al faced discrimination because of their race.
I’m not buying. Barack Obama believes in religious freedom as much as Richard Land. The difference is that Obama, speaking and acting as the president of all Americans, believes in religious freedom for Muslims and secularists as well as Protestant and Catholic Christians.
If Richard Land wants to claim the likes of Deitrich Bonhoeffer and MLK as his spiritual forebears, there isn’t much either man can do about it. The dead have no opinions. (more…)