A little too much coffee and Roberts' Rules.


27 October 2022

Baptists at the end of choice

by Jon

For the past few years, conservatives have been debating whether they are “post-liberal”. A recent article in The Federalist says we need to stop calling ourselves conservatives. “They should … start thinking of themselves as radicals, restorationists, and counterrevolutionaries.”

You could mark the start of this debate to a pair of articles in First Things, in 2019. One was Against the Dead Consensus, and then the more pointed Against David French-ism.

Are conservative Baptists post-liberal?

In J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism, liberalism was on the other side of Christianity, and those categories have stuck for a century. So “post-liberal” might appeal to Southern Baptists of today.

But these aren’t just critics of liberals. They’re critics of ‘liberal democracy,’ the Western political tradition. So the post-liberal debate is not about ‘the libs,’ it’s about liberty.

And it would be a big deal if Baptists are post-liberty.

Our Baptist tradition is steeped in congregationalism and democracy. If liberalism is fundamentally flawed, can you still be part of a spiritual democracy?

Even asking seems taboo. For most of my life, it would have been pointless. The Soviet Union collapsed. China seemed like it could be bribed into freedom. The most celebrated companies ran Super Bowl ads based on 1984, against fascism and conformity. Racial inequality seemed to be fading, along with the War of the Sexes.

Liberalism was so successful, theorists got a little punchy. In 1992, Francis Fukuyama wrote that we’d turned the corner of an epoch; we’d reached “the end-point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

Today, that end-point seems less universal. China took our money but not our values. Afghanistan took our arms but not our democracy. Russia—once so eager for American advisors—has declared war against the West.

Even in the West, the home of the tradition, liberalism is having a rough go. To give only one example, in the US, the Republican base seems to support right-leaning social policy more than lazziez faire economics. But Republicans continue to focus on economics, even where it underperforms. But in the social arena, educated conservative “elites” lost the public meanings of ‘marriage,’ ‘man,’ and ‘woman’ in about a decade. These ideas hadn’t been up for serious debate at any point in recorded history.

Maybe democracy wasn’t so natural and universal. And maybe all that freedom of choice doesn’t create human capital. Maybe endless choice isn’t the key to more Ivy League students or FAANG software engineers.

But this has left many Conservatives confounded. They believed they were selling something everybody wants; a universal freedom, Fukuyama-like. Freedom and liberty have motivated our politics for centuries.

But in 2022, young Americans are embracing atheism and soft-totalitarianism in unprecedented numbers.

If conservatives can’t sell freedom, for goodness sake, are they bad at persuasion or is the game rigged?

Baptists and the Liberal Consensus

To understand the size of the question, you must understand how long “liberalism” has been the consensus. In 1215, rebel English noblemen swore to “stand fast for the liberty of the church and the realm,” and in a few months had obtained the Magna Carta from King John. Nearly ever since, English speakers have seen “more liberty” as something good.

Yet this love of freedom arose among socially conservative people. Conservatives, says Roger Scruton, believe “the social world emerges through free association, rooted in friendship and community life.” The most important identities and relationships are voluntary and community-based, not state-driven.

Of course, some people will use their liberty to make bad choices. Liberalism often tries to curb bad choices with education. Today, a “liberal arts education,” is vapidly promised by every two-bit college. But for centuries, a liberal arts education meant giving people the facts and skills necessary to live as a man or woman with freedom.

This created a Western, liberal consensus: if you give people all the information they need, and freedom to express their will, the majority will choose better outcomes. Right-liberals and left-liberals disagreed about the best choices. But they agreed that legitimate government reflected the will—the choices—of its people.

Baptists increasingly found a home in this liberal consensus. Baptists are democratic congregationalists, by conviction. Other churches locate authority in ministers, sessions, Bishops or Popes. But Baptists say the keys to the Kingdom are given to the local church. The majority of members (whether male or female) are the Baptists’ ultimate human authorities. Baptists believe democracy is not just useful, it is divinely required. But the distinction between Baptist democracy and civil democracy has not been explored, causing many to treat the two as the same thing.

Baptists also believe strongly in liberty, especially religious liberty. Early Baptists taught that kings have no power to punish wrong beliefs, and limited power over acts of legitimate worship. John Leland, a notable early-American Baptist, said the government’s rules should apply equally to all faiths: government “rightly formed … embraces Pagans, Jews, Mahometans and Christians, within its fostering arms.” Good government, he said, “promotes the man of talents and integrity, without inquiring after his religion [&] impartially protects all of them.” In other words, if Baptist ideas swept politics, religious beliefs wouldn’t affect anyone’s capacity to participate in government.

A third Baptist distinctive says the Church should not rely on civil power to achieve the Church’s work. According to the Baptist Faith & Message:

The church should not resort to the civil power to carry on its work. The gospel of Christ contemplates spiritual means alone for the pursuit of its ends. The state has no right to impose penalties for religious opinions of any kind. The state has no right to impose taxes for the support of any form of religion.

Thomas Jefferson famously wrote the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut, about their shared commitments. He coined a phase, that the then-new Constitution had erected “a wall of separation between Church & State.” “A wall of separation” wasn’t in the Constitution, and it wasn’t a theological term of art. Jefferson might have been paraphrasing Roger Williams’ analogy of the church as a ‘walled garden’ that keeps out the rest of the world. But at least during the Baptist Faith & Message era, Baptists have picked up the phrase, affirming that they do believe Church and State should be separate.

Given these connections, perhaps it is no coincidence that Baptists reached their cultural apex around the same time liberal democracy reached its own.

Baptist theorists also got a little punchy, talking about their new epoch. Indeed, it is hard to read Russell Moore’s 2004 book, The Kingdom of Christ: The New Evangelical Perspective, without sensing the similarities to Fukuyama.

Moore was then a quickly-rising Southern Baptist professor, so conservative as to sometimes extoll “biblical patriarchy.” In his published thesis, Moore predicted a rapidly building “consensus [that] offers a renewed theological foundation for evangelical engagement in the social and political realms.” If the end consensus of human government was liberal democracy, Moore hoped that the final consensus of evangelicalism had arrived, too—and it was more-or-less Baptist. Using ‘gospel centrality,’ Moore predicted the death of evangelical parochialism, especially the “Bible Belt.” The schisms of the past would be internalized and minimized, while culture would see “cheerful warriors” engaged in “public witness” and “cultural engagement.” Evangelical Baptists could become the universal, democratic religion of a universal, democratic epoch.

But looking back, the “consensus” role that Moore coveted was the other American cultural Christianity: the civil religion of educated liberalism. They planned to step into the position vacated by Mainline churches in the 1960s.

Instead, Moore abandoned the Southern Baptist Convention in 2020, calling it a “gerontocracy,” and even a “criminal conspiracy” in 2022.

So, like Fukuyama, Moore’s prediction of a new epoch was deeply flawed. Much of the work built on its unsteady foundation has collapsed into an intra-Evangelical culture war. Moore himself has repositioned as an editor at Christianity Today, trying to ‘save Evangelicalism from itself,’ and recently talked of “crucify[ing]” evangelicalism. It is hard to imagine his predecessor Carl FH Henry making such calls.

Why is liberalism being criticized on all sides, a mere thirty years after it arrived as the victor over history? That’s the next post.