Sunday, August 29, 2004

Life Among the Baptists

The last time I remember the Southern Baptists getting so obviously committed to one candidate over another was back in 1960, when Senator John Kennedy became the first ever Catholic elected to the American presidency. I was in high school in West Texas, and Southern Baptists in that part of Texas were ready to go to the wall over the thought of the Pope taking over America.

A pamphlet circulated at my high school about how, if JFK were elected, Americans would be sending their tax payments direct to The Vatican. Catholicism was little more than idolatry, the preachers yelled. That conviction that "Protestant America" (which was a way of saying "Christian America") was about to go down the tubes certainly got into my young head, and I became something of a local activist against the prospect of a Catholic becoming Our Leader. Nixon carried Texas that year, I believe, partly by peeling off sufficient Baptist vote that under normal circumstances would have gone to a Democrat.

Not that I was a Baptist then. My mother and I were members of a pentecostal congregation on the poor side of town. We were poor people. We lived on a 3,000-acre dryland wheat farm owned by someone else. We lived in his house and farmed his land.

So while there was plenty in my young experience to make me see the functioning of social class from the bottom end of the spectrum, I was the perfect recipient for the message contained in the anti-Catholic pamphlet passed around by the Southern Baptists. I could be induced to fear and then hate what was said to be dangerously different.

I prayed. I prayed a lot. I was the only teenager in my church, so I prayed that other teenagers might somehow see the light and come join us. I prayed the prayers that many poor people pray ... that God would give me the strength to endure what I had to endure and that He would incidentally somehow find a way to make me rich. Quickly.

Never got money-rich, but the strength and values of my family and our lives of hard work and the basic hopeful outlook always of my father -- who never went a day in school past the 6th grade -- gave me a resilience and a perspective worth more than mere dollar wealth. Particularly, I developed a physical revulsion at any spectacle of social injustice (not pausing to consider at that time that branding all Catholics the agents of Satan was itself a spectacle of social injustice).

Later, when I went to a Southern Baptist College, I became a Southern Baptist convert. When I was the lone pentecostal in my high school -- known locally as "that Holy Roller" -- my friends all put pressure on me to join on up with the cool church, where teenagers were as thick as fleas. I dated the daughter of a Southern Baptist deacon, who took me to revival services at First Baptist. She never came to my church. My own brother joined up with the Baptists when he started dating a Baptist girl and then became a Southern Baptist preacher after attending seminary. But I held out until college and then gave in for romance, the very thing, I've found, that has motivated most of the weakness in the human race's knees since time began.

At my Southern Baptist college I took the required Bible class and learned a little something about Baptist and Protestant history. The Baptist Church had taken to heart one of the major foundations of protestantism: "every man his own priest." (I've never given up that tenet, and it was gender-specific. "Every man his own priest" did not apply to women in the Baptist church, which was odd to me since I had grown up with women preachers among the pentecostals, who practiced gender equality long before it was politically correct). "Every man his own priest" was one of Martin Luther's 95 Theses, I believe, nailed up on the church house door, which started the Reformation.

So when I see Southern Baptists today all lining up as obedient little servants of a particular Caesar, making their churches the willing handmaidens of a political party, I get a rash. I think, "When did you drink the Kool Aide, Southern Baptists?"

Protestants generally and Baptists particularly have a long history of saying no to political power. My brother's copy of "Fox's Book of Martyrs" provided me plenty of opportunity to see the consequences of saying no to power -- the gruesome excesses of the Inquisition were laid out in intricate detail -- and my own copy of "Pilgrim's Progress" reassured me of why we must say no to political power. Our very souls depend on it. So when I see my Southern Baptists not only saying yes to political power but also maneuvering their own congregations to vote like sheep in the interests of a political party that controls most of the levers of power, I develop something akin to prickly heat.

The massing of Southern Baptist prejudices against a Catholic presidential candidate in Texas in 1960 came to a head in a famous confrontation between candidate John Kennedy and a bunch of Texas Southern Baptists preachers in Houston, on September 12, 1960, before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. Kennedy won, not so much in Texas but with the rest of the nation, by standing up to the bullying. The Baptist preachers in the Greater Houston Ministerial Association looked like exactly what they were: a potential religious lynch mob bent on using outright bigotry to defeat a candidate for public office.

They had rationalized their propaganda by saying they were saving the U.S. from "foreign" domination. Fire-breathing Southern Baptist preacher W.A. Criswell, from my part of the Panhandle, preached widely reported sermons on the Catholic threat. There's still a brag about Criswell on an official Baptist website that "As a Baptist, Criswell's concept of a church free from government control was paramount." Forty-some years later, the Southern Baptists of today can't wait to put themselves under government control.

Just compare what Criswell preached in 1960 to the "for pastors" page on this year's Southern Baptist sponsored website The interpretation of Matthew 22:15-22 -- where Jesus is challenged by the Pharisees with the question "Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?" Jesus responds by looking at the coin and saying, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's." The website interprets Jesus thusly: "His point: All citizens -- including His followers -- are obligated to support their government." (Thanks to Tommy for showing this to me, along with a whole sermon he wrote about it.)

To which I repeat, "When did you drink the Kool Aide?"

The followers of Christ "are obligated to support their government"? The government that brought us Abu Ghraib, that brought us the doctrine of preemption, that brought us the jolliest features of the USA Patriot Act, that is busily unleashing corporate polluters on our air and water. That government? "Render unto Caesar whatever the hell Caesar wants"?

Any why? What's the motivation for overturning 400 years of Protestant attitudes toward principalities and powers? Because Baptists are terrorized by The Gay Menace, which has apparently replaced The Vatican of 40 years ago as our greatest bug-a-boo.

"Every man his own priest"? In Texas, at least, that meant we didn't need no stinking church hierarchy and especially no stinking government to tell us what was right, what was wrong. Fair dealing is right. Character assassination and bigotry are wrong. And spreading fear and divisiveness are wronger. An election campaign built on character assassination, bigotry, fear, and divisiveness isn't anything for Southern Baptists to be proud of, let alone associated with.

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