I hope the way the Southern Baptist Convention fell apart 40 years ago is not a picture of what will happen in America, but the parallels are scary.
What was the SBC and what is the United States of America both were built on foundations of trust and mutual support. On July 4, 1776, it was, “We mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” In the SBC it was the Cooperative Program, a tax-like system through which people voluntarily handed over a percentage of their church’s money to the denomination and trusted the denomination to do things churches and individuals could not do on their own.
Not unlike Congress, when leaders spent the Cooperative Program funds, they often had to compromise. We didn’t use the language of “red” and “blue” back then, but theologically speaking, there were red seminaries and blue seminaries, red Sunday School curricula and blue Sunday School curricula.
Then, in 1979, a group of conspiracy theorists alleged that a bunch of godless liberals were trying to destroy the SBC. They alleged that the trust that had held the SBC together for 100 years had been violated, and with that justification, they launched a dishonest winner-take-all campaign to control the SBC and utterly shut out those who disagreed with them. This campaign featured:
- Smearing and then firing journalists (the genesis of Baptist News Global).
- Disregarding science.
- Abandoning norms when speaking of opponents.
- Lying and distorting.
- Cultivating a pure “us” versus a dangerous “them” spirit.
I was a teenager when all this started, but I can remember reassurances that all this would eventually calm down, that the “center of the football” folks, the great majority of trusting, decent, moderate people, would wake up and not allow extremists to tear the whole thing apart. Well, that never happened. The fundamentalists winners grew fond of winning, those of us who didn’t believe the earth was only 6,000 years old grew weary of losing, and so we divorced. The Alliance of Baptists and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship became the Canadas we moved to.
Denominations, democracies and marriages are all unions requiring trust and mutual support. When that breaks down, denominations and marriages — unlike nations — have an alternative, which is to divorce. When years of evidence piles up that one party in the union no longer can be trusted to honor a commitment to a mutually beneficial relationship, then the other party leaves. It’s usually tragic and sad, but it’s also usually logical.
As Lincoln presided over our nation’s one failed attempt at divorce, he spoke words that are no less true now than then: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Whither from here for our union? I confess I do not know.
Chris Caldwell is a member of the faculty and administration at Simmons College of Kentucky, a historic Black college founded in 1879. He also serves as a board member for BNG.