Conservative Christianity's Marketing Gimmick to Keep Its Old-Time, Heaven-and-Hell Religion Afloat
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Like the Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention almost made a leap that would have brought its teachings into line with compassion and the moral demands of the 21 st century. In fact, by the 1970s it appeared that the Southern Baptists might be ready to move into a position at the vanguard of Christianity. Doors were slowly opening to women even at the flagship seminary in Louisville, and scholarship in fields like archeology, linguistics and the natural sciences was penetrating and changing theology discussions.
But then at the national convention in 1979, hard-liners seized the reins of power. Theological dissent was purged. Over a several years, women were removed from positions of spiritual leadership. By 1993 an adroit biblical literalist, Albert Mohler, who had been instrumental in the coup, was installed at the helm of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. A 1997 documentary, Battle for the Minds, tells the story of one well-loved but regrettably female theology professor, Molly Marshall, whom Mohler forced out. Under the leadership of Mohler and likeminded theological conservatives, the denomination has pursued the kind of authoritarian Old Time Religion that lead to the 1845 split, with biblically sanctioned sexism and homophobia replacing Civil War-era slavery endorsements.
Like the Catholics, the Southern Baptists recently have doubled down on controlling women as it has become clear that they are losing their battle to ostracize gays. Last year, Albert Mohler told Focus on the Family Radio that Christians need to prepare for gay marriage. “I think it's clear that something like same-sex marriage is going to become normalized, legalized and recognized in the culture. It's time for Christians to start thinking about how we're going to deal with that.”
In January, LifeWay Christian Resources, an arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, published a two-volume Bible commentary about gender roles. The commentary promotes “ complementarianism,” the idea that God made men and women for different purposes. If you couldn’t guess, the purpose of women is homemaking and childbearing. Men are made for marital, social, political, economic and spiritual leadership. Complementarianism is Jim Crow in the gender realm, a desperate last ditch attempt to ensure that straight white males keep dominance over somebody. To date it continues to have broad appeal among Southern Baptist members.
The Southern Baptists are staking their institutional future and finances on the idea that Old Time patriarchal heaven-and-hell religion still has a market and will for some time to come. In their choice of a new name, they have made clear how they intend to compete for mindshare in the coming decades: with better and more aggressive marketing of their traditional theological product. The Great Commission refers to a set of New Testament texts that mandate proselytizing. Quotes vary slightly from author to author, but they are always composed as words spoken by the resurrected Jesus to his disciples. Here are a couple examples:
Matthew: Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 28:19 NIV)
Mark: Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well. (Mark 16:15-18 NIV)