We the Baptists: Trading Away a Birthright.

We the Baptists: Trading Away a Birthright.

Reviewed by W. W. Finlator

Vol. 11, No. 6, 1989, pp. 14-15

The Southern Baptists: A Subculture in Transition by Ellen Rosenberg (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1989, 240 pp.).

There are times when the publication of a book is greeted with a Glory Be, Welcome Thrice Welcome, Amen and Amen! Such is my response to anthropologist Ellen Rosenberg’s The Southern Baptists, A Subculture in Transition, and I am sending her a letter of thanks for writing it and letter of congratulations to the University of Tennessee for publishing it.

Here is the story told in depth, in truth, and, perhaps in spite of the author’s clinical approach, in compassion, about what is happening to the Southern Baptist Convention, written by a Yankee scholar from far-away Western Connecticut State University. As Will Campbell observed: “We the Baptists. Ellen Rosenberg has shined a needed spotlight on us all.”

Not that we traditionally would have minded. Southern Baptists have a long history of indifference to what the outside world thinks of us. We have never yearned, with Robert Burns, for some Power the gift to give us to see ourselves as others see us. Why should we? In terms of what we gauge as success, we have been preeminently successful: growth, numbers, influence, power, popular appeal, wealth, etc., while just look at what’s happening to those Protestant “main line” churches!

But now with the takeover of the Convention by the Fundamentalists, which Rosenberg traces so vividly and so accurately, and which I regard as a sad but well-deserved nemesis, our attitude toward outside opinion has undergone a sea change. Southern Baptists have fallen in love with the TV evangelists, and the Right is having a love affair with both. From these dangerous liaisons the national political landscape is being reshaped, remolded nearer to the heart’s desire of religio-political zealots who want to proclaim this a “Christian Nation.” The South is just not going to, the South has risen again. With the surging Fundamentalists at the heart of resurrection, you can bet your bottom tithe that Southern Baptists are now looking

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over their shoulder at world opinion, beginning with the White House. We may preach “Blessed are the Meek,” but no one can accuse our “subculture” of meekness.

The author’s shining spotlight is on us unmercifully at this point. Whether we are moderates, conservatives, or fundamentalists, we have long been mired in compromises, veerings and vacillations, rationalizations, evasions, self-deceptions, and hypocrisies making ourselves vulnerable for the eventual takeover. All this she exposes, sometimes with the tenderness of a Matthew Arnold saying “Thou ailest here and here,” sometimes with relentless objectivity, and sometimes like Amos the prophet.

And she knows whereof she writes. Connecticut may be her home, but she has dwelt among us. She has been on the campuses of our faltering seminaries, worshipped in our churches, attended state and Southern Baptist Conventions, read our publications, studied our documents, detected our chicaneries, probed our theology, questioned our bureaucrats, felt our agonies and our ecstasies, and come up with this timely and most creditable book which rejoices my heart and should be read far and wide. But it won’t be. How sad never to learn the message of a book that tells us so eloquently how we have traded our Baptist birthright of free speech, free conscience, protection of privacy and dissent, church-state separation, and rejection of creeds for the pottage of conformity, control, authority, inerrancy, status, power, and bigness.

And, oddly, just what the country most needs in this hour we Southern Baptists have forfeited.

W. W. FINLATOR, from his several North Carolina pastorates and especially until 1983 from the Pullen Memorial Baptist Church of Raleigh, has been a prophet–with and sometimes without–honor among Southern Baptists. Annually, the Ware County Civil Liberties Union confers on some worthy defender of Civil Liberties (1989’s was to Claude Sitton, editor of the News and Observer) the “W.W. Finlator Award.” Has any other Southern Baptist preacher been so honored?