To understand what's happening at the top of the Southern Baptist Convention these days, you really have to be willing to believe that, in the end, many religious believers truly believe that religious doctrine matters more than partisan politics.
Yes, I know. The headlines insist otherwise. Headlines tend to increase a few picas in size the minute the word "evangelicals" gets connected to the words "Donald Trump."
Here's a case in point. This past week, The New York Times basically ignored the dramatic national meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention -- with lots of developments linked to women and Baptists of color -- until it was possible to write a story with this headline: "Pence Reaches Out to Evangelicals. Not All of Them Reach Back."
But, hey, at least that one story did make an important point: One of the crucial tensions inside this particular SBC gathering was between clashing camps of solid "evangelicals." Actually, lots of people on both sides of that SBC debate about the Pence appearance would, under other circumstances, be called "fundamentalists" in the sacred pages of the Times.
This brings me to this weekend's think piece, which was written by Jonathan Leeman, editorial director of the 9Marks Journal and an active leader at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. He is also the author of a new book entitled, "How the Nations Rage: Rethinking Faith and Politics in a Divided Age."
The headline: "Truth, Power, and Pence at the SBC." Here's how this essay opens:
I’m sitting here at the Southern Baptist Convention. Earlier today Vice President Mike Pence addressed the convention. We were told he initiated the offer to speak. I wish we had not accepted.
Don’t misunderstand. I’m grateful to God for our nation. I want him to bless it. But here’s a question for my fellow Southern Baptists and evangelicals more broadly: can you name a place in the Bible where God sends a ruler of a (non-Israelite) nation to speak to God’s people? Is the pattern not just the opposite?
Now, what's this all about? Is it a missive from a "moderate" (which means "liberal," in current SBC speak) at an urban church in a blue-zip DC zip code within shouting distance of the Capitol dome?
Well, Leeman is from a historic church that's a few blocks from the Capitol, but this particular congregation is also known as a global center for the young Calvinist intellectuals who are a major force in SBC life today. Also, this piece was published at the website of The Gospel Coalition, a very important network of young doctrinal conservatives, with a heavy emphasis on the word "doctrinal."
Also, this essay came to the attention of lots of Southern Baptists because of this tweet from a Southern Baptist academic leader by the name of Denny Burk, who passed along this pull quote about the Pence appearance:
Who is this Burk character?
Well, he is a professor of Biblical Studies at Boyce College, the undergraduate school of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. That's the seminary in Louisville that is led by the Rev. Albert Mohler, one of the pivotal figures in conservative intellectual life in the SBC. He is also the president of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, the conservative network that circulated the very controversial, among left of center evangelicals and the national press, document known as the Nashville Statement on biblical sexuality. Ask the former mayor of Nashville about that topic.
In other words, Burk is a very doctrinally conservative man. We're not talking about a "moderate" or a progressive Baptist who is trying to push the SBC to the left.
So let's go back to Leeman for one more quote. After listing several reasons he was troubled by this Pence appearance, he added that he thought that it hurt:
... the unity of Christ’s body. Some Christians will like Pence. Others won’t. And we don’t need to take a stance on Mike Pence or any politician to be a church or to work together as churches. Yet bringing in such a politician, especially one so heavily identified with a divisive administration, works against our unity in the gospel.
Which means, ironically, I am not sympathetic with some of the critiques I’ve seen on social media from Christians for the SBC’s decision to bring in Vice President Pence. Don’t assume that just because people like Pence they also like everything his administration represents, or accuse him of such. After all, I suspect there are things that Christians on the political left would prefer not to be associated with as well, like abortion. They should extend the same courtesy to Christians on the right.
Argue for specific issues of justice, yes! But recognize that the decision to support a particular politician is one or two levels removed. ... We are not apostles who can be certain that our decisions about political tactics are the direct revelation of God.
Much to think about, while reading this missive from an important SBC conservative. Please read it all.
I would also note, in conclusion, that lots of people are talking about the contents of the following Twitter blast, as well.