I’ve always said that one of the ways you can tell that someone who was openly racist during the Civil Rights Movement has repented is by whether they have renounced all bigotry or just shifted focus to a group that is more socially acceptable to target. The same can be said about institutions. Recently, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission hosted an event in Nashville focused on fighting racism. In and of itself, the rhetoric at the event was very admirable. Racism was acknowledged as not only immoral but still a major problem, and practices such as racial profiling and the display of the Confederate Flag was denounced. This is not entirely unexpected. The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) now has a great deal of racial diversity and recently had a black president. So why am I skeptical that the denomination has moved past its institutional racism? It is first necessary to examine the SBC’s racial history prior to the 1990s, when the denomination issued an apology for past racial sins. White supremacy was crucial to the foundation of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845. The Baptist denomination had been gripped by tensions over slavery. An article from PBS.org, “Abolition and the Splintering of the Church,” sums up these tensions and the split they played a role in causing rather well: “During the 1840s and 50s, several of America’s largest denominations faced internal struggles over the issue of slavery. Even earlier, in 1838, the Presbyterians split over the question. The Baptists maintained a strained peace by carefully avoiding discussion of the topic. But in 1840, an American Baptist Anti-Slavery Convention brought the issue into the open. Southern delegates argued that, while slavery was a calamity and a great evil, it was no sin. The Baptist Board later denied a request by the Alabama Convention that slave owners be eligible to become missionaries. Finally, a Baptist Free Mission Society was formed and ‘refused ‘tainted’ Southern money.’
The southern members withdrew and formed the Southern Baptist Convention, which eventually grew to become the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. The Baptist denomination officially split in 1845, with the North Carolina State Convention ‘cordially approving’ of the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention.” As time went on, more liberal people acquired representation in the church. Writing for the Baptist History and Heritage Society, Andrew M. Manis explains that “In other words, their annual conventions were attended by the theologically educated at a much higher percentage than was typical of the denomination’s state conventions, (usually) county associations, or local congregations. As a result, meetings of the SBC tended to be more liberal and less antagonistic to the civil rights movement than most Southern Baptists at the local level really were.”
This fact was reflected in the passage of a courageous SBC resolution supporting Brown v. Board of Education, even though most Southern Baptists opposed the decision. As Manis states, “though there were important exceptions and qualifications to be considered, the generalization still holds true that the majority of Southern Baptists upheld racial segregation and rejected claims of Christian brotherhood and the civil rights movement.” One such minister who defended segregation was W.A. Criswell, who became president of the SBC in 1968. “Let them integrate,” Criswell pontificated against Northern civil rights supporters during the 1950s. “Let them sit up there in their dirty shirts and make all their fine speeches. But they are all a bunch of infidels, dying from the neck up.” Around the time of his election, Criswell distanced himself from his old segregationist views. Yet still later, the aging preacher would rather startlingly admit, “My soul and attitude may not have changed, but my public statements did.” Of course, Criswell insisted that this time, he really had repented. The liberal leaders of the SBC were eventually stripped of most of their power by fundamentalist church figures in the “Conservative Resurgence.” Criswell was a supporter of this resurgence, which among other things led to an official policy banning female ministers.
So, acknowledging the SBC’s racist history, has the denomination turned over a new leaf with regard to race? My own gut feeling is that it has not. In addition to its refusal to ordain women, the SBC is against gay rights in virtually every area. It supports the Boy Scouts of America (BSA)’s ban on gay adults and opposed the BSA’s decision to allow gay youth leaders, opposed the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and opposes gay marriage and ENDA. It is impossible for me not to conclude here that the SBC has simply masked its racism and shifted its focus to other groups of Americans that are more socially acceptable targets of overt bigotry. To be sure, we have made great progress on women’s and LGBT rights, and there is still much racism in America as well as sexism and homophobia. Yet it is still more socially acceptable in America to be openly sexist and homophobic than it is to be racist. The fact that America no longer has large Christian denominations which preach racial segregation, ban African Americans from becoming ministers, or refuse to perform weddings for interracial couples demonstrates this.
Please understand that I am talking about the SBC as an institution. There are individual Southern Baptist congregants and ministers who reject racism, sexism, and homophobia and support equal rights and fair treatment. But until the SBC reverses its old policies on women and gays, I cannot help but see its leadership’s image of anti-racism as a con game. Call me crazy.