Co-authored with Susan Codone
“When Southern Baptists established the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1859, the prevailing orthodoxy of its white clergy included commitment to the legitimacy of slavery.”
-Report on Slavery and Racism in the History of SBTShttps://sbts-wordpress-uploads.s3.amazonaws.com/sbts/uploads/2018/12/Racism-and-the-Legacy-of-Slavery-Report-v4.pdf
The phrase ‘prevailing orthodoxy’ is doing a lot of rhetorical work here: ‘orthodoxy’ evokes the safe harbor of official sanction, while ‘prevailing’ conjures a sense of resignation to the inertia of established norms. Yet the question must be asked: as of 1859, how prevalent was the view that the institution of slavery was morally legitimate? Across the West? No. America’s N. Atlantic peers abolished slavery in the 1840s. Among Americans? No—Civil War was two years away. Among Protestants? No.
It wasn’t even the prevailing orthodoxy of Baptists living in North America: that’s why the SBC was founded. The fact is, slavery was widely regarded as morally legitimate within the SBC because the SBC was instituted for people who regarded slavery as morally legitimate. And this prevailing view rose to the status of religious orthodoxy—right belief—in the same way that wickedness typically seduces the church: moral pronouncements handed down by self-assured men in high places—men whose preoccupation with what is right according to the established order prevents them from questioning the righteousness of the established order.
Such men will answer for much on the day of reckoning, but they will not answer for you and me. In the words of C.S. Lewis, there is no judge between gods and men: we each must give our own account. The standard against which our faith and practice will be measured is truth. We’ll find no refuge in the prevailing orthodoxies of our time.
The danger of religious fundamentalism is that it blinds its adherents to this distinction between prevailing orthodoxy and objective truth. That’s why fundamentalists can see no difference between rejecting God’s Word and rejecting what they say about God’s Word. And that’s why fundamentalists in the SBC are so resistant to institutional reform: once we look beyond what’s good according to the established order and inquire into the goodness of the established order, moral authority shifts away from ambitious men and toward the truth itself.
Men at organizations like the Conservative Baptist Network, FoundersMin and the CBMW all advance orthodoxies that conform to their personal and political interests. But do their agendas conform to moral truth? The SBC’s prevailing orthodoxies have been characterized by racism, misogyny and a refusal to acknowledge the moral salience of institutions—despite overwhelming evidence that wicked men cannot simply be relied upon to refrain from doing wicked things. For example:
Centuries of injustice have produced a divergence in the lived experience of Americans from different racial backgrounds—between those who read the book of Exodus and see their ancestors among the people of Israel, and those who should see their ancestors among the Egyptians. Yet the SBC’s prevailing orthodoxy holds that differences in experience are irrelevant to our grasp of truth. Thus civil rights leaders in the ‘60s and ‘70s were dismissed by white Southern Baptists as liberals and Marxists, as are those calling for systemic justice in 2020.
According to the SBC’s prevailing orthodoxy in the 1850s, although people of African and European descent were created equally in the image of God, the latter were entitled to strip the former of their autonomy and ownership of their labor capacity. Today, according to the prevailing orthodoxy of some in the SBC, women are created equal to men; but the principal occupation for which they are so created is unpaid domestic service to their husbands and children.
According to the prevailing orthodoxy of the 1850s, the fact that rape was endemic to the institution of slavery was an indication that, at most, slave owners should be admonished to refrain from raping slaves—not that the institution of slavery was iniquitous. Unlike slavery, church autonomy is a morally neutral convention. But according to the prevailing orthodoxy of our time, church autonomy is so sacred that preserving it takes precedence over institutional oversight designed to prevent serial sexual predation.
Sexual predation is framed as an issue of individual conduct, rather than an institutional failure to hold predators and their enablers to account. Those calling for systemic reform are dismissed as leftists, Marxists and feminists, just like civil rights leaders before them. Thus the prevailing orthodoxies of our day have enabled unchecked sexual abuse within the SBC—long term, unfettered movement of sexual predators from one SBC church to the next. Prevention efforts are lackluster, while protections for predators are robust.
All of these evils, from slavery and racism to misogyny and serial predation, are variations on a theme: abuse of power, engendered by prevailing orthodoxies that render systemic injustice invisible to those whose moral horizons are tethered to individual piety.