by Ben Sanders, III
On November 30, 2020, the Council of Seminary Presidents of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) issued a collective statement excitedly reaffirming a twenty-year-old document called the “Baptist Faith and Message” as definitive of the Convention’s confessional and cooperative stance. The Baptist Faith and Message addresses various social and theological topics including Scripture, salvation, the Christian and the social order, and peace and war. Not surprisingly, the statement reaffirmed by the SBC’s presidential council is unabashedly conservative in texture and tone; both the language used and topics addressed reflect the Convention’s commitment to theological conservatism anchored in the view that “Scripture is totally true and trustworthy.” What was notable about the presidential council’s collective statement was its explicit claim that “Critical Race Theory, Intersectionality, and any version of Critical Theory is incompatible with the Baptist Faith and Message.”
The SBC’s rejection of critical race theory (CRT), intersectionality, and critical theory is made especially interesting by two points. First, not one of these theoretical approaches is mentioned in the Baptist Faith and Message, the doctrinal document being reaffirmed by the presidential council’s shared statement; instead, the SBC’s rejection of CRT and intersectionality can be traced to a June 2019 Resolution. Therefore, rejection of these viewpoints in the context of this statement represents a doctrinal tangent which the council viewed as critical to clarifying the social and religious norms of the SBC. Second, the SBC’s unsolicited rejection of CRT, intersectionality, and critical theory comes just months after President Trump mischaracterized critical race theory as a “horrible doctrine” being used to “rip apart friends, neighbors, and families.” The SBC’s unsought denunciation of CRT and intersectionality coincides with Trump’s pseudo-patriotic critique of CRT in ways that clearly signify cultural and political solidarity. Moreover, when one considers the overwhelming support Trump received from white evangelicals alongside the fact that the SBC is the largest protestant evangelical denomination in the United States with around 85% of its membership being white, it stands to reason that shared critique of CRT is more than coincidental.
Though the SBC will surely maintain that its rejection of these “secular theories” was primarily about faithfulness to the gospel not culture wars and politics, those of us familiar with the history of white Christianity in America and with how Trump tapped racist white Christians in route to the White House will recognize the SBC’s theological dog whistle for what it is: the perpetuation of white supremacist norms in the name of Jesus. The SBC began in 1845 when it split from its northern counterparts over the issue of slavery (the SBC has a storied history of using the Bible to support slavery, segregation, and white supremacy). One hundred and fifty years later, in 1995, the SBC issued a resolution apologizing for its racist past. Unfortunately, the recent joint statement from the presidential council clearly shows that the ’95 apology – including its rhetoric about racial reconciliation and understanding “that our own healing is at stake” – was offered from the same kind of white supremacist, paternalistic theology that originally drove the SBC to defend slavery. If the previous sentence seems extreme, I invite the reader to briefly consider the role and nature of biblical interpretation in both 1845 and 2021.
In the 19thcentury, leaders of the of the SBC interpreted the Bible in ways that justified the slave trade and slave ownership; in 2021, the SBC interprets the Bible in ways that view CRT, intersectionality, and critical theory as “incompatible” with Baptist doctrine. Put differently, theories which have largely grown out of and been formed by communities subjected to the white supremacist structures the SBC helped establish and defend with appeals to Scripture are now being deemed as dangerous and in need of being subjugated to the SBC’s interpretation of Scripture. As was the case in the 19thcentury, the SBC continues to use its misunderstanding of “the authority of Scripture” as righteous justification for marginalizing and rejecting ideas and worldviews that demand justice and freedom for all of creation.
In the past few weeks, two prominent black pastors have left the SBC in light of its comments on CRT. Those of us who are Baptist and have met Jesus in the struggle for justice, liberation, and equity can only hope and pray that more leaders and congregants will make the same decision. But if history (both recent and extended) is any indicator, the SBC will probably remain the largest evangelical protestant denomination in the United States, and so the rest of us will need to remain vigilant. We must sing a new song: a song of faithfulness to Christ that opposes the white supremacist biblicism modeled by the SBC. This song will be sung in notes that sound off to many, but when these notes resound with the fullness of our faith and communal determination, we will find ourselves in the presence of the One who came to oppose dehumanizing religious teachings in the name justice, liberation, and love.
Ben Sanders, III is Assistant Professor of Theology & Ethics at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO and serves on the Board of Directors of the Alliance.