Memo to my Fellow Southern Baptists: Might Is Not Right

First Baptist Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress’s comments about President Donald Trump (for whom he is an official surrogate) and North Korea are deeply irresponsible, even if interpreted in the most charitable light imaginable. In remarks to The Washington Post, Jeffress said:

When it comes to how we should deal with evil doers, the Bible, in the book of Romans, is very clear: God has endowed rulers full power to use whatever means necessary — including war — to stop evil. In the case of North Korea, God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong-un. I’m heartened to see that our president — contrary to what we’ve seen with past administrations who have taken, at best, a sheepish stance toward dictators and oppressors — will not tolerate any threat against the American people. When President Trump draws a red line, he will not erase it, move it, or back away from it. Thank God for a president who is serious about protecting our country.

Note carefully that Jeffress doesn’t simply assert just war theory, or argue that protecting American citizens is paramount for the government. Instead, he baldy assumes the role of Old Testament prophet and says that God has specifically given President Trump a specific moral clearance to wage war against a specific leader and country. This isn’t just political commentary from a pastor. It’s Urim and Thummim.

I thought this was exactly the kind of partisan, divisive rhetoric that Southern Baptist leadership was so concerned about with regards to the ERLC and this summer’s resolution on the alt-right? Wasn’t Russell Moore pressured by megachurch pastors and SBC personalities to tone down what they felt was his too-assertive critique of the Trump campaign? Wasn’t the problem with Moore allegedly that he was not “staying in his lane” as head of the moral and public policy arm of Southern Baptists, that he was over-politicizing his platform?

“Ok,” you may respond, “but Moore is the head of an SBC entity, and Jeffress is merely a pastor of an SBC church.” To which I say: Yes, he’s the pastor of a 12,000 member church, in the most Southern Baptist state in the country. Does Southern Baptist leadership really not think that when Americans hear or read Jeffress offer blanket endorsements of war, they think he speaks for Southern Baptists? If Moore’s comments were problematic in that they confused people as to the official position of the denomination (which is precisely what many of his loudest critics claimed was the issue), there is no reason why Jeffress’s comments shouldn’t be viewed as equally problematic–unless, of course, the right people in the denomination agree with Jeffress and disagree with Moore.

And I certainly hope that’s not true, because if it is, I fear my denominational home may be slouching toward Zarathustra. What Jeffress told the Washington Post is a thinly veiled appeal to “might is right.” Why are we so confident that President Trump has God’s green light to start a war? Well, it’s because—wait for it–he’s President. It’s because he can. That’s the message we’re getting from one of the most influential SBC pastors in the country. God has become Thomas Cromwell, rewriting revelation so the king can do as he please.

This is a disgrace.

Southern Baptist leadership needs to take these comments as a serious error signal as to the health of the denomination. When prominent pastors whose political alliances can cause people like Russell Moore to be on the defensive for their job are talking like this in public, something has gone drastically wrong. Many Southern Baptist seminaries and colleges teach just war theory, insisting that because all people are made in God’s image, the burden of proof for military violence is very high. That’s a noble tradition, a biblically responsible one. It’s a far cry from the shameless Nietzschean call to arms we’re hearing right now.

 

Image credit

Advertisements

Virtue and Signaling

One of the responses I keep seeing to the Southern Baptist Convention’s statement about alt-right and white supremacy goes like this: “I agree that racism is bad, but this just feels like political correctness. It seems like the SBC just wants liberals to think they’re good people. Why aren’t we condemning all forms of racism, like [insert group here]? This just reeks of virtue signaling.”

Of course, the proper response to this objection is to ask the person saying this, “Do you mind explaining to me in this context what the difference is between virtue signaling and being virtuous?” That’s the correct answer because the burden of proof is on the one making the accusation of virtue signaling to explain why condemning a politically active group of racists is by definition performative, but condemning abortionists, LGBT lobbyists, and doctrinally wayward churches is not.

But too often, I see friends try to respond to this accusation by saying that it’s not virtue signaling, because racism is a serious threat, it matters how we as a denomination respond to it, and our black and brown brothers and sisters in the faith need to hear us call sin against them what it is. That’s all true, of course, and it all matters. But I don’t think that it’s the best response to the charge of virtue signaling, for two reasons. The first reason is pragmatic, and the second reason is philosophical.

The pragmatic reason is simple. If someone is trying to argue that denominational statements against racism or the alt-right are virtue signaling, you’re not going to get far with them by using arguments that emphasize how brave or necessary such statements are. You see, the trouble with accusations of virtue signaling is that when the stakes go up, the accusations get stickier and stickier. By saying this issue is just too important not to speak up on, you are merely ceding the fact that “liberal media” (by which most people who say this phrase mean everybody who is not in their sociopolitical in-group) determines what’s important to talk about. Like a conspiracy theory, it’s a vicious cycle: Of course you think it’s important to talk about racism, because that’s what the media keeps saying, and what’s important to you is being on the right side of the media, etc etc etc. You can’t defeat this line of thinking with logic, because it’s designed to entail every single response you can give to it. It’s a faith commitment, not a rational deduction.

The philosophical reason is more important, though perhaps less obvious. What makes virtue signaling morally dubious is the fact that it’s basically a synonym for hypocrisy. People who virtue signal are essentially performing virtue for the approbation of others. They either don’t really mean it or else don’t mean it as much as they’re letting on. They want to be known a certain way, and their desire to be approved far outweighs their intellectual commitment to what they’re saying.

That means that the person who is accusing you of virtue signaling because you explicitly condemned racist speech or attitudes is actually changing the subject. The subject has changed from racism, and those who promote it, to you–your motivations, your morals, your authenticity. Here’s the thing: Once the subject is changed in this way, it can’t un-change on its own. Once the issue becomes the where the info came from, instead of whether it’s true or helpful or necessary, that’s it. The conversation has calcified. We aren’t talking about black people, or white supremacy, or theology, or American culture anymore. We’re talking about you.

It’s this rhetorical move that has to be thwarted at all costs.

Part of the reason American racial politics are not better than they are is that both the Left and the Right have tried to change the subject in this way. When the conversation threatens to become about undue economic hardship in redlined black communities, conservatives have too often said, “But look at how liberals have benefited from gerrymandering!” When the conversation threatens to become about Planned Parenthood’s absolute ravaging of urban communities, liberals have too often said, “Conservatives only care about babies until they’re born!” The movement away from racial justice issues toward the motivations of those trying to parse them out is a cultural and political feature that has been devastating, because it has been so effective, and so few people know how to quit its cycle.

If I had 10 seconds to be broadcast on all major TV networks to say whatever I wanted to say to America, I’d say: “Jesus offers life, and don’t be afraid of finding truth outside your tribe.” The intense, life-crushing political polarization of our culture grinds the mechanisms of actual positive change to bits. And it’s due in large part to the fact that people actually believe “But what about them” is a good, morally responsible argument.

It’s not.

Proud

I’m grateful that my denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, overwhelmingly passed a resolution at their annual meeting today condemning the white supremacy of the so-called “alt-right” movement. This was the right resolution at the right time for the right reasons, and it was the right decision to pass it. The resolutions committee’s decision not to take action on it last night created a storm of controversy. I’m glad it did, but it would be a mistake to singularly focus on the delay. The point is that Southern Baptists have made it explicit where they stand when it comes to the resurgent racism of a nativist, faux-conservative, viciously hateful group.

I’m sure there are people reading this who think my denomination doesn’t deserve laud here. After all, do you really get credit as a traditional evangelical body for saying that people who sling the most vile slurs and employ disgusting rhetorical tactics should be rebuked? Of course, in a sense, nobody deserves credit for that. It should be self-evident. But if the history of the Southern Baptist Convention teaches anything, it’s that people who are right about the deity of Christ can nonetheless be totally, abjectly wrong about the humanity of those with different skin. The point is not that Southern Baptists are great people for denouncing the alt-right. The point is that, for a denomination whose very founding was bound up in theological justifications for the destruction of other human beings, the real gospel–the gospel of the “one new man,” who wasn’t white and didn’t die to found a white church–that gospel has not been utterly lost.

For that, I give thanks.

photo via Craig Garrett