Ross Douthat takes on what he calls ‘The Baptist Apocalypse’ — apocalypse in the original Greek sense of “unveiling.” He says the Southern Baptist Convention’s #MeToo moment can be seen as a struggle between an “Old Guard” that has, in Douthat’s words, “a strong inclination toward various forms of chauvinism and Christian nationalism,” versus Russell Moore’s younger faction. Douthat says he’d like to see the Robert Jeffress kind of Trumpy Baptist decline, and the Moore kind increase, and hopes for “a general reckoning with the pull of sexism and racism within conservative-leaning churches.”:
But to assume that’s necessarily going to happen is to fall into the same inevitabilist trap that ensnares both arc-of-history progressives and providentalist Trump supporters. Instead it’s wiser to regard an era of exposure like this one as a test, which can be passed but also failed. A discredited “old guard” doesn’t automatically lose power; a chauvinism revealed doesn’t just evaporate. And the temptation to dismiss discomfiting revelations as fake news, to retreat back into ignorance and self-justification, is at least as powerful as the impulse to really reckon with the truth.
So the question posed by this age of revelation is simple: Now that you know something new and troubling and even terrible about your leaders or your institutions, what will you do with this knowledge?
That last paragraph is radioactive, because it’s the question that no side in this struggle can deny. This is a test for the Southern Baptists, same as it was for Catholics, same as it is for any organization in a place like this. The world will judge based on the outcome.
Whatever the outcome of the Southern Baptist conflict, I hope — I fervently hope — that the folks in the church don’t interpret the unveiling as an unwarranted attack on Old Guard leaders, and therefore regard defending them and their leadership as the same thing as defending the Gospel. It is an iron law of sociology that over time, any elite will come to regard the interests of the institution it leads as the same as its own interests. A lot of Southern Baptists can’t stand Russell Moore (who’s a friend of mine), but whatever their view, if they allow themselves to believe that this moment is all about beating back Russell Moore, they will do catastrophic damage to their church.
When things broke for Catholics in Boston, back in 2002, Cardinal Law wanted to hold on to power at all costs. He could not grasp that the things he had done, and the things for which he was responsible, required him to resign. His position was impossible. I recall at the time that there were some conservative Catholics who, while recognizing Law’s sins and failings, did not want him to resign because for him to have done so would have meant, to them, giving the Catholic Church’s enemies (including the Boston Globe) a prominent scalp. What they did not recognize was their interpretation of events, and preferred strategy, was causing the Catholic institution to hemorrhage moral authority.
After Law eventually left, and the Catholic apocalypse (in the “unveiling” sense) spread nationwide, the same thing happened. A lot of bishops who ought to have resigned or been sacked by Rome held on to their positions, and one heard some conservatives defending it with lines (I heard this one directly) like, “Sure, the bishops haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory here, but…”. That era in Catholic history has passed. I wonder (and I’m not asking this rhetorically): how do Catholics judge that their church passed the “what will you do with this knowledge?” test? How do others see it?
How do you think it affected the Catholic Church’s standing as a witness in the culture?
What lessons should the Southern Baptists learn from the Catholic experience?
One general thing I recall from the years 2002-2006, after which I left the Catholic Church and stopped paying close attention to its internal matters: even those on both the Catholic left and the Catholic right who were willing to talk openly and critically about the scandal tended to leave certain things out, depending on their own orientation within the Church’s politics. For example, it was hard to get conservatives to talk about the role mandatory celibacy might have played in exacerbating the crisis. And it was impossible to get liberals to discuss the role that homosexual networks within seminaries and presbyterates. Factions were eager to discuss what the other side had done wrong, but not so willing to put the spotlight on themselves and their sacred cows.
Maybe that changed after I left. But that’s what I remember: a lot of internal re-positioning and self-protection posing as self-reckoning.
Southern Baptists, don’t do this. You won’t be able to get away with it. There will be a price for evasion. Better to face it all right now, fearlessly, and deal with it. Yes, this will be a fight between factions, and between generations (though I know some young Southern Baptists who side with the Old Guard), but that fact should not prevent Southern Baptists on both sides from examining their own faults pitilessly, and repenting. No church (or political party, or any other institution) reaches a crisis point like this because only one side failed.