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Southern Baptists vs. Baptists

Not All Baptists Are the Same

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We need to keep in mind that “Southern Baptists” are not representative of all Baptists in America. Too often that basic fact gets lost, perhaps due to the fact that non-fundamentalist, non-authoritarian Baptists just don’t make the news quite as often.

A good example of one such Baptist is Paul D. Simmons, a clinical professor of medical ethics and an ordained Baptist minister. You won’t find fundamentalist Southern Baptists saying “Thank God” for humanists — even atheistic humanists. But that’s just what Simmons says in the introduction to the recent book he edited, Freedom of Conscience: A Baptist/Humanist Dialogue. Simmons describes the difference between traditional Baptist views and the fundamentalist Southern Baptist Convention thus:

    Moderate Baptists see authority in terms of the roles of persuasion and leadership, not dictatorship. Fundamentalists want a Pope in every pulpit and then a Pope among the lesser Popes which also pertains to your question pertaining to their emphasis on dogma instead of individual interpretation. Women in ministry appeals to the notion of personal calling which in turn is based on the notion of direct relation to God as spirit and lord of the conscience.
    The Fundamentalists insist now on an authoritative set of beliefs that are to be held by all the faithful and accountability is to be made to those in positions of authority, namely, seminary Presidents like Mohler and the convention President and other elected and appointed officials. That strategy is totally non-Baptist but is consistent with the Evangelical/Fundamentalist tradition that now dominates the SBC.

This not only does a good job of summarizing some of the chief differences between the two Baptist groups, but underscores the fact that these differences are very important as to how nonbelievers think of Baptists. Although this was not its intent, Simmons’ does an excellent job of explaining how the Southern Baptist Convention has been taken over by fundamentalist and conservative evangelical forces.

People don’t realize that although the Southern Baptists have always been conservative on social issues, they weren’t always as bad as they are today. Simmons explains how the atmosphere in Southern Baptist seminaries gradually changed, tolerating less and less difference of opinion among professors. How many people are aware that in Southern Seminary there were student “brown shirts” who recorded lectures, reported on any comments to the administration, and circulated anonymous rumors about those who weren’t strictly adhering to the “party line“?

These days, it is unusual to hear devoutly religious people speak up with humanists and atheists in favor of things like the separation of church and state, but contributors to Simmons‘ book do just that. The section on the separation of church and state is written by mostly by Christians who are defending the idea that separation enhances religious liberty. Robert Alley, for example, discusses the importance of Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists, reassuring them that their religious liberty would be protected by the “wall of separation” between church and state. It is curious that today some Baptists deny that such separation does or should exist.

Paul Simmons’ own chapter is an interesting exploration of the battles over religion fought by James Madison - both in his home state of Virginia and while President of the United States. It is fascinating how some of those conflicts are similar to what we see still today.

For example, Madison fought against an attempt to have the state pay for teachers to teach Christianity — not at all unlike current attempts to have the state teach bible classes in public schools or pay to send children to private, religious schools. In Madison’s time, like in ours, such attempts stem from religious groups who are losing their dominant position in society and seek to have the state artificially boost them up again. For Madison, it was Anglicans and Episcopalians. For us, it is conservative Protestants.

It is also interesting to read about E. Y. Mullins, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and once president of the Southern Baptist Convention in the early years of this century. He wrote that public funding of sectarian causes is a “flagrant violation” of separation, a principle which he considered to be self-evident and something Baptists should never waver from. It will be a long time before we hear a president of the Southern Baptist Convention say something like that again.

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