Tuesday, February 21, 2012

What's In a Name?

Making the national news this week is a proposed name change for the Southern Baptist Convention.  It’s an idea that’s been periodically revisited—and then rejected—for decades.

I spent 30 years of my ministry working in Southern Baptist Convention churches outside the South, first in Northern California, then in Chicago, and finally in Minnesota and Wisconsin.  In my experience all three words in the SBC name are problematic.

Southern has obvious regional connotations that are especially negative in places like the Upper Midwest and the Northeast—at least as negative as being identified as a New Yorker would be in Tupelo, Mississippi.  The Civil War didn’t end with a peace treaty—just a grudging cease-fire.  Regionally-based suspicions and misconceptions still abound in American life.

Baptist is a word that has long carried with it a lot of negative and confusing stereotypes in the minds of secular people, even among secular Southerners.  Some of these stereotypes are misplaced; some, not so much.  Many automatically associate Baptists with Fundamentalists.  Some Northerners actually believe that Baptists represent some weird cult, like the snake handlers of Appalachia.  When I worked for the Chicago Metropolitan Baptist Association in the late ‘80s we commissioned a focus group study on the perceptions raised by the name Southern Baptist.  We learned that our new suburban church plants were automatically assumed to be Black churches since the words “Black” and “Baptist” were strongly connected in Chicago.  Too often Southern Baptists have unwittingly defined themselves by what they are against—not a strong selling point.  And for the last 30+ years SBC leadership has so often equated conservative theology with conservative politics that for outsiders, a Southern Baptist church is automatically assumed to be a voter recruitment center for the Republican Party—a big turn off for millions of Democrats and Independents as well as for many Republicans.

And then there is word Convention which in the minds of most people is more readily associated with trade shows in Las Vegas than with a religious body—not exactly a desirable connotation for the largest Protestant denomination in North America.

The study group established at last June’s SBC Annual Meeting has announced a recommendation that the SBC keep its current legal name.  Changing it would be enormously expensive and complicated.  It would be confusing and would open up the probability that some other group would begin using the name.  Instead they are recommending the informal use of the name Great Commission Baptist be encouraged in places where the label Southern Baptist is a problem.  I suspect that this is simply adding a new public relations problem for Nashville.  It smacks of incredible arrogance.  Is the study group suggesting that the many other Baptist bodies are not committed to fulfilling the Great Commission?

The ties between Rivermont Avenue Baptist Church and the Southern Baptist Convention have long been tenuous.  There has never been any formal separation nor is there any pressure to make such a break today.  But for many years the SBC and RABC have been drifting in slowly diverging directions.  What the future holds, I cannot say.  But in my year at RABC I certainly see no evidence that this gap was caused because Rivermont Avenue Baptist Church is somehow less committed to the Great Commission than are other Southern Baptists.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

In Defense of Religious Liberty

As Americans we tend to take our religious liberty for granted.  Many of us grew up hearing stories about how in 1620 the pilgrims fled Plymouth, England for the wilderness in what would eventually be called Massachusetts, expressly for the freedom to worship God as they saw fit.  Today many mistakenly believe that freedom of religion was consistently maintained and universally available during the colonial period.  Such was not the case.  In some colonies dissenting Christians were routinely arrested, imprisoned and fined.  Their property was seized.  Their church buildings were burned.  Some were even physically tortured.  And the worst villain—the most consistent perpetrator of religious persecution among the English colonies—was none other than the Colony of Virginia.  This persecution reached its zenith in the 1760s and 70s in the years immediately prior to the revolution.  The primary target of Virginia’s religious persecution was none other than the Baptists.

Baptist historian, Robert A. Baker, related that the bitter experience of religious persecution by order of representatives of the Crown, in close concert with the Church of England, “led Baptists almost to a man to believe that the only possibility of securing religious liberty was bound up with the achievement of political liberty.”  Consequently, Baptists in Virginia were actively involved in both political agitation and in taking up arms against the king.  Baker adds, “England recognized this, and Baptist churches were regularly burned by their troops during the war as ‘nests of rebellion.’”

Therefore it should come as no surprise that when freedom from British rule was finally achieved, Virginia Baptists were determined that the new federal government would enshrine religious freedom in its new constitution.  On September 17, 1787 the Constitutional Convention adopted the new constitution and sent it to the thirteen states for ratification.  Soon thereafter Virginia Baptists gathered to examine the proposed constitution.  They “unanimously agreed that it did not make proper provision for religious liberty…”  So Rev. John Leland, a popular Baptist pastor in Orange County, fought against ratification by announcing his candidacy as a delegate to the Virginia Convention that would vote on the document.  His opponent was none other than James Madison, who favored ratification.  The two men met privately.  Leland helped Madison understand the Baptists’ concerns.  After securing Madison’s pledge to address these issues forthwith, Leland withdrew from the race in support of Madison, who was then elected.  The constitution was ratified.  Afterwards Baptists supported the election of James Madison to the new congress.  Then in June, 1789, Madison introduced ten amendments to the new constitution, the first of which guaranteed freedom of religion.

We Virginia Baptists can take particular pride in our historic role in establishing and preserving religious liberty in the United States.  But liberty once won must continually be defended.  Today religious liberty in the United States is under new attack.  Whether deliberate or inadvertent, the inclusion of a provision of the new healthcare law requiring church owned and operated schools and hospitals to provide free birth control—including the so-called “morning after pill” which at times works by inducing the abortion of the newly fertilized egg—is a direct assault on religious freedom of conscience.

Be clear regarding what is at stake here.  The issue is not birth control or abortion.  It has nothing to do with your political party affiliation.  Whatever your views about these issues and regardless of who you plan to vote for in November, if you value religious freedom then you ought to actively oppose this unwarranted intrusion of federal power into the ability of religious organizations to establish policies and conduct their affairs as they see fit.  It is not enough to be free to worship in private without constraint.  Freedom of religion is far broader than simple freedom of worship.  Freedom of religion means freedom to exercise your faith in the public square and to do so without government interference.  Our ancestors paid a dear price for that freedom.  Honor those past generations, and protect the rights of future generations, by working to overturn this unconstitutional intrusion by government into the affairs of the church.