It is no exaggeration to say that one of the most consequential political events of the twentieth century was the conservative/fundamentalist resurgence/takeover in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Whether you think it was a good thing (in which case it was a conservative resurgence) or a bad thing (thence a fundamentalist takeover), time is showing its broader import and influence to be vast, including the misogyny now increasingly exposed by the #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements and the sway of its political influence up through the highest levels of the federal government.
Consider the two best known white evangelical leaders in Donald Trump’s orbit, Robert Jeffress and Franklin Graham: Both are Southern Baptists. A significant percentage of Trump’s original evangelical advisory group, created in the summer of 2016, is Southern Baptist, including Jeffress, former SBC presidents Ronnie Floyd and Jack Graham, Richard Land, Jay Strack, and David Jeremiah. Jerry Falwell Sr., one of the most important architects of the New Christian Right and its pervasive political influence, was a Southern Baptist, and so was Billy Graham. Senators John McCain, Roger Wicker, Tom Coburn, Lindsey Graham, and Mitch McConnell all identify as Southern Baptists, among many other officials in the federal government.
The Southern Baptists of 2018 are not the same as their counterparts a half-century ago, when I was born to Southern Baptist parents and began my immersion in the church. They’re still overwhelmingly white, of course, and still concentrated in the South and Southwest (the Bible Belt and the Sun Belt). But there are immense critical differences. One of the most important of these is today’s SBC’s wholesale embrace of complementarian gender dogma and the concomitant view that a wife should “submit herself graciously” to her husband’s leadership and authority, as a declaration written up and adopted at the SBC meeting in 1998 put it. That was only 20 years ago; there was no such official Southern Baptist statement prior to that time.
The Baptists of my southern childhood did not see female submission as a doctrinal issue. In fact, members of my church and of the denomination as a whole held a wide spectrum of views. My mother, a lifelong Baptist and highly active member of Chattanooga’s First Baptist Church, was a feminist who helped found the city’s first chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW). She did not, then or ever, see the slightest contradiction between her devout religious convictions and her belief in basic, commonsense gender parity in the public and private spheres, views shared and supported by my (then Republican) father and the ministers on the church staff. Some of Mom’s friends were more conservative and suspicious of feminism as a movement, but I’m pretty sure that if you’d suggested in 1970 that they should submit to their husbands, graciously or not, those steel magnolias would have laughed you right out of the narthex.
Baptists at that time certainly appeared to see abortion as a women’s issue. When the Supreme Court decriminalized abortion in 1973’s Roe v Wade decision, Southern Baptist leaders appeared to support access to abortion, at least under circumstances with which they could sympathize. Ninety percent of Texas Baptists surveyed in 1969 had affirmed that their state’s abortion laws should be loosened. A 1970 poll by the Baptist Sunday School Board suggested that 70 percent of SBC pastors upheld a right to abortion to safeguard the mother’s health, 64 percent in situations of fetal deformity, and 71 percent for pregnancies occurring from rape. In 1971, SBC messengers (the mix of members and pastors who vote at conventions) passed a resolution affirming “the sanctity of human life, including fetal life” while also calling on Southern Baptists “to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother”—a rather capacious formula. After the 7-2 ruling in Roe was announced, W.A. Criswell, one of the denomination’s most prominent and respected leaders, praised the court’s decision, publicly asserted his view that abortion is not murder, and argued that “what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed.”
Behind the scenes, though, some Southern Baptist ministers dreamed of purging the seminaries, pulpits, and eventually the pews of “liberals” who, however deep their faith and correct their doctrine, might hold different views on political issues, particularly those relating to women and sex. Gender ideology was manifestly central to that push, engineered by men (and supported by anti-feminist women) who strenuously opposed women serving in church leadership. By the mid-1970s, under the guidance of denominational leaders like the pastor (and eventual seminary president) Paige Patterson and Texas judge Paul Pressler, that dream was on a snowball’s course down the mountain of dogmatic biblical interpretation: Pressler and Patterson adopted a shrewd political strategy to drive the election of extremely conservative convention presidents, who held enormous power in appointing trustees to SBC entity boards. Starting in 1979, that plan was extremely successful in consolidating power within a tight network of conservative leaders who appointed other (male, needless to say) conservatives in a clear chain of command, including seminary presidents, trustees, and heads of SBC agencies.
Right away, liberal professors of biblical studies and theology were driven out of Southern Baptist divinity schools for such offenses as teaching students evidence about the multiple authorship of Scripture and allowing them to debate the fine points of theology and ethics without fear of heresy. Molly Marshall, the first female theology professor at a Southern Baptist seminary, was fired—the same year she received the school’s major teaching award—for reasons never clearly explained but that certainly had something to do with the feminism in her theology. Faculty members were newly required to sign statements pledging their opposition to abortion, homosexuality, and women in pastoral leadership, subjects that many Baptists still felt were open to different theological understandings. The Baptist tenet of congregational autonomy could not block some assemblies, like the Chattanooga church, from having women ministers on staff and electing women such as my mother as deacons, all but ignoring SBC leaders. But a course had been set, and the purge was remarkably successful, establishing the SBC as a bulwark of patriarchal fundamentalism for decades to come and compelling many Southern Baptists who disagreed with the church’s stance on women—most prominently, former President Jimmy Carter—to leave.
Ironically or fittingly enough, Pressler and Patterson, the takeover titans, were themselves taken down by sex scandals of various types. Earlier this year, Pressler’s name hit the national news for disturbing accusations of same-sex sexual misconduct and assault leveled against him; shortly thereafter, Patterson was ousted by Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary over substantiated charges of damaging sexist behavior against women (from counseling an abused woman to stay with her husband and commenting on the body parts of young women to mishandling rape reports). That the architects of the “wives submit graciously” addition to the edifice of Baptist theology turned out to be men tainted by sexual misbehavior and chauvinism shocked many but could hardly surprise. As more sexual abuse scandals come to light, we’re getting a sad lesson in the ways that some respected leaders have ignored, neglected, and covered up injurious and even criminal behavior against vulnerable church members.
If that sounds like a plot from a movie, this is unfortunately not fiction, and the calculated strategy for retaining power regardless of fairness or due process has persisted in the denomination to this day. That the leaders of a tradition long known for touting its tolerance of independent thought within the wide bounds of the Bible became so thoroughly intolerant, not only of difference of opinion but of mere questioning and debate, has been a painful pill for many cradle Baptists to swallow. Untold numbers of people in the pews who have been perturbed by the machinations of denominational leaders and dismayed by the church’s patriarchal entrenchment have left the church for more democratic, egalitarian climes, even as many of those remaining have apparently grown comfortable with its top-down dogmatism. As one Baptist, removed as a trustee from the International Mission Board in 2006 for trying to prevent other trustees from removing some women from leadership there, put it recently: “Southern Baptist pastors are infatuated with and captivated by authoritarianism.”
No wonder so many white evangelicals are infatuated with and captivated by the authoritarian occupying the White House. It’s been a long time coming.
Marie Griffith is the director of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics and the editor of Religion & Politics. Her latest book is Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians and Fractured American Politics. Follow her @RMarieGriffith.